Art

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The 1999 Broadway hit “Art” makes a grand regional debut at Pioneer Theatre Company, easily demonstrating why the show was so popular in New York.

It’s a deceptively simple comedy about a well-off Frenchman named Serge (Ian Stuart) who spends 200,000 francs on a painting that is nothing more than a white background with some diagonal white brushstrokes across it — not much of a painting, it would seem, and certainly not worth $200,000.

That’s what Serge’s good friend Marc (William Whitehead) thinks, anyway. A classical thinker not fond of the modernist movement, he bluntly calls Serge’s purchase “[excrement].” This leads to an argument: Serge is pretentious for pretending to love a painting simply because it’s a status symbol, and Marc is narrow-minded for refusing to accept the possibility that Serge might actually like this painting.

Marc goes to their mutual friend Yvan (Craig Bockhorn), a pudgy, newly engaged nebbish whom Marc is certain will agree with him about the painting. Yvan, predictably, straddles the fence, but tends to land more on the side of thinking the painting is at least somewhat valuable.

So there are the three positions: worth $200,000, OK as a modernist work, and [excrement]. From this simple Seinfeldian set-up stems a vast array of personal and interpersonal conflicts. They range from the fancy — how do we decide whether we like a work of art or not? — to the down-to-earth — how do we decide whether we like a person or not?

After a particularly lengthy battle that brings up Yvan’s fiancee (a “gorgon,” someone calls her), Marc’s wife and Serge’s pretensions, something startling occurs to the trio: They’ve been friends for 15 years, but with no apparent reason WHY. What drew them to each other? Why do they stay together? Do they have anything in common? Do any of them have traits which the others admire or respect?

From a simple thing like a debate over a painting come some thought-provoking issues. What is the nature of friendship? Do we have to “get” something out of it, or can we just enjoy one another’s company? How do you call a friendship off? It’s not like a marriage, where you can get divorced and make it official.

The play maintains a high level of intellectual (and occasionally sophomoric) humor throughout, even while addressing the weightier matters. All three actors show aplomb and grace; the characters come to life in all their petty, unlikable glory, snarking at each other in a way that is uncomfortable in real life but highly entertaining onstage (when we’re not the ones being snarked at).

Yvan is the only likable character of the lot. His lengthy and hysterical monologue detailing the woes of writing wedding invitations serves to establish him as the one whom we can most relate to. Most of us share something in common with Marc and Serge, too, but we’re not liable to be comfortable admitting it. One of the show’s strengths, in fact, is that even though Marc and Serge are both snippy, unforgiving, mean-spirited and picky, pulling apart every word and cynically searching for hidden meanings, we’re still sympathetic. We still want their friendship to work out. After all, we’d work hard to repair our friendships, too, no matter how unlikely those friendships may be.

This was playing on Broadway the first time I visited New York (1999), but I had to choose between seeing it and seeing something else. I made the wise choice, since "Art" wound up being performed in Utah later anyway and whatever it was I saw instead didn't.

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