In 1934, an interviewer asked Gertrude Stein to explain a piece of her writing. "Look here," Stein answered. "Being intelligible is not what it seems." Understanding, she went on, is not about putting a piece of art into other words, but rather about pleasure. "If you enjoy it, you understand it," she said. "If you do not enjoy it, why do you make a fuss about it?â
Stein could just as easily have asked this question of Marc, one of three characters in Art, by French playwright Yasmina Reza and translated by Christopher Hampton. Marc definitely does not enjoy the piece of art recently purchased by his friend Serge. To Marc, this large, white-on-white canvas (for which Serge paid $200,000) is "shit." But Marc cannot let it go—he, like Gertrude Stein's interviewer, makes a fuss about it. A giant, irrational fuss, which spirals into a viciously personal reassessment of the men's friendship.
Reza's play, despite its title, has more to say about relationships than it does about art. But for such a widely produced play (it has been translated into more than 30 languages), Art doesn't dig terribly deep. To be sure, it poses questions: Why are we so irked by our friends' habits? Why do we cling so tightly to our opinions and our gripes? What holds our friendships together? Art gives these questions glossy and efficient treatment, though it never gets to the bottom of them.
Fortunately, this casual and stark production by new company Theatre Now—cleverly staged at various Pearl District galleries, where the surrounding artwork offers an arresting counterpoint to Serge's white canvas—benefits from a skilled trio of actors. As the anti-modernist Marc, Golden Globe nominee Daniel Benzali gives an assured and somewhat puckish performance, squashing his face into cannily subtle expressions. Sam Mowry is not as steady-footed as Benzali, but he brings injured complexity to Serge's sophisticated aspirations. Caught in the middle and whacked about like a pingpong ball is Jonah Weston, whose raw portrayal of Yvan offsets his friends' incessant bickering.
Art does not demand explanation from Reza. It's breezy and crisp and easy to like, with a fair share of well-crafted zingers and pithy one-liners. Where Reza has left it slight, this capable cast helps fatten it up, and the conclusion is undeniably cunning. Engaging yet somewhat detached, Art is unlikely to cause a fuss—for better or worse.
SEE IT: Art plays at various Pearl District art galleries through Oct. 21. See theatrenow.net for details. 7:30 pm Fridays-Saturdays, 4 pm Sundays. $12-$20.