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Uneven acting robs Yasmina Reza's Art of some of its substance

Art
8pm Fri & Sat,
Jun 29 & 30
$20 w/ dinner;
$15 show only
Ruben’s Bakery and Café
14357 Blanco
(800) 838-3006
Thecompanytheatre.org
As anyone who has ever taken an English course has probably heard ad nauseam, “all poems are fundamentally about poetry.” The implication the tweed is always making is that art is self-reflective — that all plays ultimately are an exploration of the theater, that all paintings point back to the act of stroking a brush across canvas. But what if there are no brush strokes? What if the canvas is empty?

This is precisely the case in The Company Theatre’s Dinner Box Production of Yasmina Reza’s Tony Award-winning play Art. In Art, a wealthy dermatologist named Serge spends $200,000 on a plain, white canvas and alienates both of his friends — snarky aesthete Marc, and Ivan, a schlub who makes postcards for a living. The play is basically 90 minutes of the question, “Why are these people friends?” but also asks, with varying levels of success, the sorts of questions one could easily overhear at an art gallery full of sensitive creative types: What is art? What is friendship? How can the two coexist?

It’s relatively easy to say, then, that the play flirts with pretension. But the play’s ceaselessly irreverent tone, its “Art,” prevents it from drowning in itself, and through irony captures the play’s central message: Art is serious, but it’s not that serious. When Mark, played by company manager Damian Gillen, calls Serge’s $200,000 folly “a white piece of crap” before launching into an impassioned criticism of postmodern art, the intent is both to mock art and mock the snobs who mock it. The play should have just been titled “Irony.”

This play requires equal doses of art-school sarcasm and Painting 101 earnestness to work, and the Company Theatre’s production is a bit uneven. As the three men’s friendship dissolves, we see the sort of fractured personalities that could have a serious rift over a blank canvas and a weighty check. Unfortunately, we also see the acting discrepancy in Art’s three principals. Mark, played to pretentious perfection by Gillen, exudes traditional, arrogant intellectualism so effectively that he seems almost intolerably shrill in the play’s opening scenes. This is part of the act, of course. When he is onstage with at least one of the two others — as he is for the entire, somewhat tedious second act, and for good chunks of the four-scene first — the play sharpens to a point.

But when either Serge, played with a bit too much wealthy blandness by Jared Stephens, or everyman Ivan, hammed up to Kevin James proportions by Benji Regan, is alone onstage, the play loses its momentum. The second act, which gathers all three characters together for the first time for a sort of group-therapy art session, drags, and lines that should be darkly comic turn melodramatic. The play finds its feet in the ending, which this cast executes with just the right mix of earnestness and irony, but there is something a bit off in the play’s denouement, as if the entire conflict of the play had been too easy to solve.

Some of this is the fault of the dialogue’s obvious doctoring; the Company has made an attempt to make the play family-friendly and appropriate for a place like Ruben’s Café and Bakery, where it is currently showing (with a side of sandwich and salad, in fact). These people don’t curse like artists in the show, and I suppose that’s fine, but hearing the most abrasive character in the play call his pushover friend “a pudding” does more than make the play appropriate for the very young — it minimizes the conflict at the play’s core, the impassioned debate of art-obsessed young men who mask their relational discord with an argument about a painting. In Act I, Marc says “You don’t understand the seriousness of this.” And sometimes, no matter how hard I laughed — at art, at people, at myself — I didn’t, either. 


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