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Three Men and a Painting

Lofty Aesthetics Bleeds Into Personal Attacks in The Viciously Funny 'Art'

ART ISSUES: Karl Kippola (left) and Bruce Nelson (right) argue as Chris Bloch abstains.

By Geoffrey Himes | Posted 6/4/2008


By Yasmina Reza

At Everyman Theatre through June 29

There are many jokes in Yasmina Reza's 'Art', most of them pretty funny. But the biggest, best joke of all is the show's very premise: that three grown, well-educated men, friends for 15 years, would get into a fight over a painting--a fight that begins with vulgarity and ends in fisticuffs.

Like the best jokes, this one merely exaggerates an overlooked truth. In this secular age, when theology's force has dwindled, many of us locate our values through art--and thus our arguments over Eminem, Oasis, Spike Lee, or Thomas Pynchon often escalate beyond mere opinions about entertainment options. It's as if we were arguing about religion.

In Everyman Theatre's current production of `Art', the point of contention is a 1970s minimalist painting by the fictional celebrity artist Antrios. Serge (Karl Kippola), a successful Parisian dermatologist in a brown turtleneck, has just spent $200,000 on this canvas of mottled white and gray with two diagonal white strips across the lower left corner. When he shows off his new purchase for his best friend Marc (Chris Bloch), Serge bounces on the balls of his feet, his reddish eyebrows lifted in hopeful expectation, as if he'd just handed over a good report card to his dad.

Marc, a slightly older aeronautical engineer with a bald head, is obviously dismayed by what he sees, but every time he opens his mouth to pronounce judgment, he glances over at the puppy-dog eagerness of his friend, closes his mouth again, tugs at his goatee, and ponders how to put it. Director Jeremy Skidmore and the two actors wonderfully milk this wordless scene, but finally Marc can't restrain himself and bursts out, "You spent $200,000 on this shit?"

Who wouldn't be offended? But Serge takes it more personally than is perhaps wise, and an argument over visual aesthetics soon turns to name-calling. Before long every unspoken grievance each man has stored up over the years comes tumbling out. Much of the show's humor stems from this crumbling of a rational facade, from the revelation that our grown-up ideas are often but a thin veneer over our childish emotions.

The argument keeps expanding--every attempt at an apology is delivered with such condescension that it touches a raw nerve and reignites the conflagration. The battle inevitably draws in Serge and Marc's mutual friend Yvan (Bruce R. Nelson), a less confident, less intellectual younger man whose latest stab at a career is selling stationery supplies.

Yvan doesn't really care about the painting, so he's willing to agree with Serge when they're together and with Marc when they're together. It's only when all three of them gather in Serge's living room that Yvan is pressured to take a stance.

Nelson may be the best comic actor in Maryland right now. He played a Macy's Christmas elf in The Santaland Diaries at Rep Stage this past winter, and he looks a bit elvish even without the costume--he has a pointed nose and a wiry, apparently boneless frame. In his supporting role, Nelson steals the show with a tour de force monologue where Yvan describes the traumatic planning for his imminent first marriage by imitating the voices of his fiancée and his divorced mother so vividly and with such accelerating panic that these invisible characters seem to be onstage with him.

The three men are the only actors we see, but they appear haunted by the women in their lives--Yvan by his controlling fiancée Catherine, Serge by his bitter ex-wife Francine, and Marc by his nutty New Age girlfriend Paula. Reza pokes fun at male intellectuals everywhere with this script--these men aren't able to voice their resentments toward their own lovers; in fact, they can't share emotions at all unless they're wrapped up in an artistic or political theory.

Skidmore and his three actors are much better at getting the comic absurdity of the argument than the possibility that the fight might reflect values that actually mean something. The production puts so much emphasis on the painting as a surrogate for personal grudges that the show misses Reza's point that aesthetics may deserve such passions. We never get the sense that Serge and Marc really care as much about art as they say they do.

Despite that, the Everyman production is so funny that it provides a quite gratifying evening. The more Serge and Marc try to act like snooty know-it-alls, the more they resemble little boys. And when the verbal jousting turns physical--involving first the two men, then Yvan, and finally the painting itself--the payoff is worth the wait.

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