Wow! Wowie! What an evening! Thank you North Carolina Stage Company for serving up one helluva good theater experience. This 1998 Tony Award-winning play by Yasmina Reza (a French actress, playwright, and novelist) expertly blends comedy and drama, seesawing between the two. With only three characters, each a major player, Art is an actor’s dream. And given the three actors in this excellent production, it’s a sure-fire audience-pleaser.
The plot is simple: Serge (Charles McIver) has paid 200,000 francs for a white painting with white lines. He shows it to his friend Marc (Bill Muñoz), seeking both to impress him and gain his approval. Marc denigrates the painting and, by extension, his friend, and an argument ensues. Marc goes to their mutual friend, Yvan (Matthew Detmer), to enlist his support. The ever-obliging Yvan agrees that, given Marc’s description of the painting, it is no work of art and Serge has obviously thrown his money away. As the play progresses the conflict between Serge and Marc over the painting becomes more acrimonious, revealing a long-simmering anger between the two men. Eventually the anger leads to violence, with Yvan caught in the middle.
On the surface, the play deals with the question: What is art? Indeed, the white painting is as much a character—albeit a mute one—as the other three. But Ms Reza’s real interest lies in people and their relationships rather than ideas. For her, “art” is a springboard into an exploration of friendship: its responsibilities and boundaries. It is what the characters wrestle with over the course of the evening. Marc, conservative and opinionated, sees the world in black and white (no pun intended), becoming angry if his friends don’t agree with him. Serge, a condescending egghead (and given Mr. McIver’s ostensibly bald pate, I say again, no pun intended), feels intellectually superior to both Marc and Yvan, but is hurt by their criticism. Yvan, an Everyman, is someone with no great plans or ambitions; he is content to go along with what other people want in order to be liked.
Mr. McIver’s Serge is wonderfully arrogant, so full of pretensions and self-importance that you’d love to stick a pin in him. And that, of course, is exactly what Mr. Muñoz’s Marc does. As portrayed by Mr. Muñoz, the cruelty of the criticism, delivered with obvious delight, is seasoned with a desperation made even more apparent by his need to persuade Yvan to side with him. As the hapless Yvan, Mr. Detmer brings an eager, puppy-like neediness to the character. His vulnerability is the perfect counterpoint to the arrogance of his two friends.
One of the really interesting things about this play is the unlikability of the characters. There is no way I would want to spend an evening with these three men, and yet I did—and enjoyed every minute. Full credit for this goes to the performances of Messrs. Detmer, McIver, and Muñoz, and their obvious enjoyment of the characters they play. It was they who held me enthralled as the characters acted out their anger toward and, ultimately, love for one another.
Underpinning these fine performances is the superb direction of Ron Bashford, who keeps the play in balance from beginning to end. The appropriately bland minimalist set by Patrick J. Rizzotti is the perfect backdrop for the acerbic dialogue taking place within it. I particularly liked the use of a small painting, changed according to whose apartment the action was in, to help define the characters.
I have only one small quibble and it’s not with NC Stage but rather with the translator, Christopher Hampton. Why, Mr. Hampton, in translating the play, did you leave the cost of the painting in francs? To hear the characters talk about 200,000 francs is monetarily meaningless as well as disconcerting. It does not, however, take anything away from this wonderful and enjoyable production. If I could, I'd give it a 10! Don't miss it.