Monday, September 29, 2014

"Art": A Play that Succeeds In Spite of Itself

A screen in the lobby of City Lights Theater
shows a scene from the play Art.

The play called Art, by Yasmina Reza, was an enjoyable afternoon's entertainment, and a good value, and I wouldn't want to put anyone off of seeing it at the City Lights Theater, in downtown San Jose, but in the interests of fair reporting, I have to say that the play succeeds despite a ton of disadvantages.

In the first place, the subject—art values—is pretty esoteric. For me, as an art fan, art values is an important subject, but I have to wonder how many people would want to spend ninety minutes listening to three guys argue the subject. No women, no sex, no romance. No bombs, no plots, no action; one laughable attempt at a fist fight. The whole one-act play is an argument about whether an all-white canvas, which may or may not have a faint design in white on white, can have value. Are there really a lot of people interested in minimal art?

But it turns out that it is not really an argument about minimal art, but a pouty, ego-driven squabble. One guy buys a white painting for an exorbitant price. His buddy, and sometime mentor, thinks this was such a stupid move that he takes it personally. He conceives it as a rejection of himself and his values. Well, this is just plain annoying, and it motivates most of the action. The buyer, who is not so confident about his move anyway, takes offense at his sneering manner, and the fight is on. The character who saved it for me, largely because of expert acting, was the in-between guy, who tries to make peace. He is comically neurotic, and the actor expresses this with great physicality, gesturing and flailing. In the center he does a neurotic, self-engrossed, hysterical rant that completely won me over.

Yasmina Reza is a beautiful French woman, age 55, whose heritage is Jewish, Iranian, and Russian. She writes in French. Art is her first play; it premiered in 1994 in France. It later had a long run on Broadway, starring various famous actors including Alan Alda and Alfred Molina. The play won the Tony in 1998, and several other awards. It is said that actors love doing these roles, and that is one reason it is a favorite with regional theaters. The other is a play with only three actors and one set is cheap to produce.

It bothered me that the characters behaved so foolishly. I could hardly imagine one man telling another that his purchase was a piece of shit. Okay, well, men do sometimes have that jocular way of telling the truth, but then I would have expected the other guy to counter with some comparable insult, and then they would go off to have a beer. But I suppose the point of drama is to tease out the emotions and attitudes underlying nonchalant interactions. The acting in our local production was excellent, but I couldn't help wondering what it would be like with star-quality actors like Alan Alda. Perhaps there would have been more engagement, more urgency to the conflict.

It's remarkable that you can get a good theater experience for only $25, senior rate, Sunday matinee. The theater is small and well laid out so all seats are good. And in spite of everything, people seem to love this play. I'm glad about that.