BACKS TO FRONT But is it Art?
Anyone who doubts the dangerousness of art anymore need look no further than the canvas in Yasmina Reza's Art to refresh their faith. But the art of Reza's dark comedy is less like how the social realists wanted art to be a danger to social iniquity, and more like how the reflecting pool was a danger to Narcissus. Freeport Factory Stage produces it at their attractive new venue on Depot Street, under the direction of Julie George-Carlson.
Serge, a well-off dermatologist (Chris Newcomb), has just dropped $200,000 on a painting that appears to be a completely white canvas, a purchase that drives his friend Marc (James Noel Hoban) into a condescending, passive-aggressive rage: "It's a piece of white shit," he snaps, and things degenerate from there. Their more even-tempered friend Yvon (Joe McGrann), who is about to be married, gets caught in the middle as the men turn on each other like witty French vipers.
The contrasts and dynamics between them are revealed and progressed bracingly. Newcomb's Serge first shows off his painting in all good faith and with puppyish, unaffected pleasure. But he is immediately affronted by Marc, who in Hoban's hands is so desperately derisive that his aggression is clearly defensive. And McGrann is excellent in showing the humbler man caught between the bigger egos: We meet his ass first, as he searches under the sofa for a dropped pen cap, and then the red, bald-headed, forthright face of a man surprised and grateful for any modest happiness. His snark-less equanimity makes him an easy pawn for Serge and Marc to play against each other, and he stands in particular contrast to Hoban's Marc, who quips to Yvon's rear end, only half-kidding: "If you keep on looking for that cap, I'm leaving."
As things get uglier, the cast has deft fun with Reza's withering and self-conscious intellectual banter, with some clever digs at art-speak and some pithy put-downs. After Serge advises Marc to read Seneca, in order to go back "to the basics," Marc replies, "As in painting, where you've ingeniously eliminated form and color." Regarding the painting in question, it is said to contain "a system" that "stakes a claim as part of its trajectory." And: "As far as I'm concerned, it's not white," Serge says. "Marc's gotten caught up in the idea that it's white."
The barbs and cruelties mount, from passive-aggression about where to dine to a truly despicable joint attack on poor distressed Yvon (whose aggrieved monologue in response, to my mind, is a highlight of the show). As they do, it becomes ever clearer that Art isn't just a parable about art, or rather that any parable about art is really about how man sees himself. Marc says he can't like the Serge that likes the painting, and it's really because he's found it that Serge sees him differently than he'd thought.
Reza's script, as in an intellectual exercise, keeps us from empathizing overmuch with its exaggerated characters, despite this cast's excellent performances; and as staged here, its rather rushed resolution adds to that sense of distance. But overall, FFS puts on a solid and witty production of Reza's show, a clever musing about how frightening the tenuousness of self-definition can be.
Megan Grumbling can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.
ART | by Yasmina Reza | Translated by Christopher Hampton | Directed by Julie George-Carlson | Produced by the Freeport Factory Stage | through October 2 | 207.865.5505