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Art? Marc (Stephen Paul Johnson) reconsiders his assessment.

A Blank Slate

By Kathryn Lange


By Yasmina Reze, directed by Kirk Jackson

Capital Repertory Theatre, through Oct. 12

French Playwright Yasmina Reza surely had to purchase new shelving to hold all the awards she won for her smash-hit intellectual comedy Art: the Tony, Critic’s Circle, Laurence Olivier, and Moličre Awards to name a few. This slew of honors designates Art as a categorically powerful work—even as “the best.” And yet, ironically, Reza’s script explores the subjectivity of art, and the extreme diversity of human response to a single creation.

The bonds between three longtime friends are tested when one of them buys a very large, very expensive, and entirely white painting. As their aesthetic sensibilities and divergent philosophies clash, the fundamental differences between them emerge—and their differences spin from intellectual discourse to explosive emotion. One of the constant challenges tossed among the three conflicting characters is, “Does it resonate with you?” The same challenge can be put to the audience of Capital Repertory Theatre’s production of Art.

Theater is particularly affected by the subjectivity of interpretation. A painting, a sculpture, a novel—all are presented complete by the artist, and interpreted by the audience. A script, however, is interpreted and reinterpreted by dozens of artists with each production, then offered to the audience who evaluate the work both collectively and individually. In theater, subjectivity is a vast room. Yet, within that room exist the distinct elements of craft, which can be assessed on their own and, hopefully, when taken as a whole, weave the nuances of the script into a single, resonant story.

Art, too, takes place in a vast room, adeptly created for Capital Repertory Theatre by scenic designer Roman Tatarowicz. The contemporary living room is crisp and spare—monochromatic down to the houseplants—and offers dynamic playing spaces for the small cast. The play is set in the respective living rooms of its three characters. The neutral space is dramatically altered by Michael Giannitti’s subtle lighting, and the rotating placement of one of three distinct pieces of art to mark each location. This simultaneously functions to define both space and character—and to demonstrate the transformative qualities of art.

Director Kirk Jackson clearly works tightly with his technical team; the lighting design plays wonderfully with the set, and both are executed with precision and detail. Tirza Chappell’s costumes also are highly detailed and immediately character-defining. She externally establishes the vast differences between the three men. Marc, an aeronautical engineer, appears in khakis, a navy sport coat, conservative red tie, and loafers, starkly contrasting his modern, dermatologist friend Serge’s crisp ensemble of black and gray, a T-shirt and V-neck sweater layered under his blazer. Yvan, the eccentric peacemaker and stationary salesman, wears moccasins, brown corduroys and a cozy green pullover.

The costuming is well executed, but the concept is flawed. Like many of Jackson’s choices for the production, the costuming heightens the superficial differences between the men. The script is laden with their disparities. The easy choice is to create three caricatured types who differ on everything from their sensibilities to their shoelaces—and it is the choice Jackson makes for this production. Unfortunately, much of the script’s drama and nuance is lost to slapstick and stereotypes.

The three actors execute Jackson’s clear direction with skilled comedic timing, precise mannerisms and crazed energy. But the people they create are shallow and simple; the complexity of their characters is sacrificed for laughs at every turn. Serge (Donald Corren), the purchaser of the offending painting, is sharp, cocky and stereotypically effeminate as the art-collecting modernist. Marc (Stephen Paul Johnson) is the swaggering, conservative “maverick.” Oliver Wadsworth’s Yvan is entertaining, but wildly over the top. All three actors are technically strong, and clearly following Jackson’s direction, but they steer an award-winning script into the realms of television sitcom.

At one point, Yvan speaks the scripted words of a shattered man—suddenly realizing he is at the brink of losing everything, and that the few things he has to cling to may not satisfy him. He breaks down. And the audience laughs, and laughs and laughs. Because the moment isn’t permitted the honesty it deserves. He sputters huge, fabricated sobs into the wall, his back to the audience, then spins around and mugs for laughs before collapsing in a heap. Comedy can be made even funnier when balanced with drama, but this production never lets its guard down. Never lets its characters sink for a moment into vulnerability or regret.

Art is an intellectually and emotionally complex play with little dramatic action. The tension comes from wanting the trio to survive this battle of intellect, aesthetics and independence. Capital Repertory Theater’s production leaves you wondering why the men were ever friends in the first place, and why they shouldn’t just go their separate ways.

The production is technically polished and highly entertaining. The caricatured, slapstick comedy had the bulk of the audience in stitches for the entirety of the play’s 90 uninterrupted minutes. But does it resonate beyond the moment? Does it challenge its audience to examine their own perceptions and limitations, their relationships and aspirations? Art has that potential, but, in this production, the resonance and importance of the script are squandered for the sake of laughs.


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