'Art': Theater Review

Courtesy of Manuel Harlan
Paul Ritter (left) and Rufus Sewell in 'Art'
Two decades later, the canvas looks blanker than ever.
2/18/2017

Rufus Sewell stars in Yasmina Reza's long-running, award-winning three-way bromance, returning to London in this anniversary revival from Matthew Warchus, who first directed it 20 years ago.

A sensational success when it opened in London 20 years ago, Yasmina Reza’s hit Parisian comedy Art subsequently played for eight years in the West End and notched up 600 performances during its Tony-winning Broadway run. Now director Matthew Warchus, who first put Christopher Hampton’s crisp English-language translation on the U.K. stage, returns to the play with this polished but lukewarm anniversary revival.

A sugary indulgence for the holiday season, Art lacks the weight of a full theatrical meal. Reza structures the 90-minute single-act narrative not in formal scenes but in pithy little episodes, mostly duologues between two of the three protagonists, punctuated by short confessional asides that break the fourth wall. The pace of this production is snappy but the jokes fall a little flat, the dramatic tension feels forced and the characters are self-absorbed bourgeois dullards whose petty problems lack real emotional heft. That said, the play’s crowd-pleasing track record and the marquee appeal of Rufus Sewell (Victoria, The Man in the High Castle) should ensure healthy ticket sales for this limited London run.

Serge (Sewell) is a suave, wealthy professional who has just paid 100,000 euros ($104,000) for a blank white canvas by a fashionable artist. He proudly displays the painting to his old friend Marc (Paul Ritter), a cynic with more traditional tastes, whose reaction quickly turns from mocking laughter to withering scorn. Marc’s bitter disappointment at Serge’s surrender to the vacant values of modish modernism spills over into their mutual friendship with Yvan (Tim Key), the good-natured beta male of the trio, who is already anguished by the tortuous preparations for his forthcoming wedding.

Though it makes several appearances during the play, the painting itself soon becomes a MacGuffin, a catalyst for amplifying hidden tensions in this longstanding three-way bromance. As their disagreement escalates, Serge and Marc insult each other’s arrogance, snobbery, lack of humor, choice of life partners and betrayal of their former closeness. When Yvan plays peacemaker, he is derided by the others as a "coward" and an "amoeba," and even suffers a minor injury when he tries to defuse a brief scuffle. But just as their friendship looks doomed, an inspired act of vandalism helps restore the surface air of cordial equilibrium between these three old sparring partners.

Twenty years ago, London audiences embraced Art partly as a timely satire on the overhyped Young British Artist movement that made super-rich stars of Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin. Through 21st-century eyes, Reza is plainly less concerned with the socioeconomic forces behind cultural taste than with the power dynamics of friendship and the difficulty of being truly honest, even between people who love each other. These are perfectly valid themes but they feel woefully small and parochial in the current politically charged climate. After all, three moneyed white European males bickering over an expensive painting is pretty much the dictionary definition of First World Problems.

The opening of Art feels like the setup for dazzling intellectual fireworks and sharp social insights. But despite sporadic echoes of Stoppard and Pinter, and fleeting references to Seneca and Freud, the drama never gains much heat or depth, sticking comfortably within middlebrow chamber-farce conventions. Of course, not all plays need to be game-changing state-of-the-nation sermons, but even as pure frothy entertainment, this production is only fitfully funny and low on emotional engagement. Warchus has not refreshed the context beyond inflating the price of the painting for the post-euro era. The result is a mildly amusing comedy of manners that is already starting to feel like a creaky museum piece.

Casting also is problematic. The iconic screen stars and stand-up comedians who propelled Art to success 20 years ago (originally, Albert Finney, Tom Courtenay and Ken Stott in London; Alan Alda, Victor Garber and Alfred Molina on Broadway) have been replaced in this production by fairly minor TV talents. Sewell is the most famous, and achieves the best comic impact with his fidgety body language and wry facial expressions. Ritter and Key are best known in the U.K. as sitcom actors, and both give fairly low-voltage performances. Any shared chemistry among the trio is tepid at best. It's a stretch to believe they would ever be friends in the first place, never mind to care when that friendship suffers a self-inflicted bout of minor turbulence.

In fairness, there are some grand comic flourishes in this production. Key manages to squeeze huge laughs from unlikely but expertly timed lines like "expanding document wallets," and it is impressive to see how Warchus and his cast unlock the latent comic potential of three men silently sharing a bowl of olives. Mark Thompson's minimal stage design, a high-ceilinged Parisian apartment with a spinning wall panel that distinguishes it among different owners, is an elegant touch, too. What a shame that Reza's flimsy, inconsequential play does not really merit all this high-level artistry. "It's just a painting," Serge concludes wearily, "nothing to get hung up about." Perhaps the line is meant to be ironic, but it's hard to disagree.

Venue: The Old Vic, London
Cast: Rufus Sewell, Paul Ritter, Tim Key
Director: Matthew Warchus
Playwright: Yasmina Reza, translated by Christopher Hampton
Set & costume designer: Mark Thompson
Lighting designer: High Vanstone
Music: Gary Yershon
Presented by: The Old Vic

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