What do we talk about when we talk about art? International City Theatre’s (ICT) currently streaming production of Yasmina Reza’s “Art” dives through an essentially blank canvas to probe the very nature of friendship. Produced and expertly directed by ICT Artistic Director caryn desai [sic], “Art” entertains both cerebrally and emotionally – itself a work of art.
Three men involved in what we might call a “bromance” – fast friends for 15 years – form a stable tripod that threatens to topple when one of them invests in an expensive painting that is (arguably) completely white. Why the purchase becomes such a sore point is explored from start to finish in a witty, intelligent and deeply psychological way.
Adding to the appeal of the play are its three well-cast and very expressive actors – important since its virtual format requires actors to nearly constantly face the audience. And the format itself (designed by Mike Bradecich) is not your usual Zoom meeting but aesthetically pleasing with suitable backgrounds and moving screens that add dimension and interest in an otherwise flat medium.
When Marc (Michael Uribes) learns that Serge (Brent Schindele) has purchased the nearly all-white painting for a seemingly exorbitant sum, he tells his friend, “It’s s- – -.” Serge accuses Marc of being a know-it-all. Each accuses the other of having lost his sense of humor.
So begins a highly verbal series of scenes and asides in which the characters argue and consider why the painting and the reactions it draws are disturbing them so much, and what is worth making a person happy, reminiscent of a Samuel Beckett play exploring human relationships in a minimal context.
Soon entering the mix is third friend Yvan (Brian Stanton), already anxious given that he has recently changed careers and is about to get married. Marc and Serge approach him separately about the painting and what the other friend has said, and of course Yvan must walk a fine line between them in an amusing way.
Words, ideas and emotions escalate to a crescendo during an extended evening at Serge’s after the men vow to be on their best behavior to preserve their friendship. Waiting for Yvan to show up so they can all go to a movie, Marc and Serge testily discuss philosophy and art, including the monochromatic painting at the center of their debate.
Yvan arrives distraught, delivering a hilarious monologue about his fiancée and both their stepmothers bickering over the imminent wedding, performing all the female voices as he narrates. His friends are neither impressed nor sympathetic, calling him spineless like an amoeba, and a “nothing” (perhaps like the painting).
Hurt, Yvan reads a profound statement about relationships from his therapist that prompts the men to tackle the very human, existential foundations of their bond and what each is to the other. What unfolds about friendship is not warm and fuzzy but rather devastatingly raw and profoundly truthful.
The play is thus both thoughtful and thought-provoking, an intimate exploration of the heart, of human relations broken open by an object that could stand in for anything. The verbal acuity of the dialogue is engrossing by itself, but the refreshing quality of the acting and production makes the play all the more enjoyable.
Interestingly, Christopher Hampton’s translation of “Art” from the original French leaves in place culturally specific references (Perrier, Lyonnaise food, the Pompidou art center) and words (such as “fashionable” rather than “popular”) that may seem odd on American men’s tongues. The sheer range and delightful sharpness of the dialogue is not what we’re used to hearing around here.
But one wishes we could all talk this way, not just about art and philosophy, but about how and why we really need each other. Like the white canvas, “Art” reveals the blank spaces between us and, in an engaging way, the “stuff” we fill it with.
International City Theatre’s “Art” is available for streaming every Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday through March 7. Tickets are $30 per household, available for purchase at ICTLongBeach.org.