Long before the debut of The Hills, Mean Girls, or even Desperate Housewives, the concept of the “frenemy” was launched into the zeitgeist of popular culture by a play: Yasmina Reza’s Art. Unusually, the protagonists were male, but by any standard they fit the bill, trading barbs (“You’re just Marc. What makes you so special?”) and bickering like querulous teenagers (“You’re both really sinister this evening”).
Art, which since its debut 17 years ago has been transformed and staged in more than 30 languages, is currently playing at Signature Theatre, translated by Christopher Hampton and directed by Signature’s 27-year-old resident director, Matthew Gardiner. Three local actors, Mitchell Hébert (Marc), John Lescault (Serge), and Michael Russotto (Yvan) play the trio of friends, and at first glance the casting looks impeccable. Hébert, who won a Helen Hayes nomination for his performance in Woolly Mammoth’s Clybourne Park last year, has the bearded, tidy look of a European intellectual, while Lescault and Russotto appear respectively debonair and scruffy. So far, so French.
Here’s the premise: Serge, a wealthy dermatologist, is extremely proud of his new painting, which he purchased for 200,000 francs (about $40,000 in contemporary money). Marc, his best friend, is horrified by the purchase, which is essentially a large white canvas adorned with a few faint, diagonal white lines (in other words, it’s as blank as Sarah Palin on foreign policy). Marc attempts to unload his concerns on Yvan, but Yvan’s live-and-let-live philosophy only irks Marc further, while Serge’s exclusive smugness about Marc’s inability to appreciate art (“he doesn’t have the training”) drives an even bigger wedge among the group.
There are plenty of concepts within Art that may not translate well to an American audience. The idea of three grown, heterosexual men not only falling out over a painting but also plunging headfirst into a metaphysical crisis about said falling-out (and using words like “deconstruction” to describe it) seems relatively absurd this side of the Atlantic, where the state of male friendship is best summed up by either a Judd Apatow movie or a Budweiser commercial. But Art has long charmed American audiences, from its 1998 Tony-winning run on Broadway starring Alan Alda, Victor Garber, and Alfred Molina to its 2009 Steppenwolf staging in Chicago. So the problem here seems to be in conviction. Although all three actors are likable enough, they lack chemistry, making it easy to dismiss their friendship as a mere thing of convenience rather than a real relationship worth fighting for.
Gardiner could pay more attention to timing: Some jokes are rushed, while in other scenes the pace starts to drag. Reza as a playwright is almost as enamored with pauses as Harold Pinter, once saying that, “in a play, words are parentheses to the silences. They’re useful to the actors, but . . . they aren’t the whole story.” Art, with its emphasis on discord and conflict, is as much a drama as a comedy. One scene where Yvan breaks down into tears is very moving, but otherwise the overall emphasis on playing for laughs actually detracts from the comedy.
James Kronzer’s set is stylish but manufactured: Ikea lamps and multiple white vases and books give off a catalogue feel, without any clues to offer insight into the lives of the characters (we don’t need furniture to tell us that Serge is attracted to minimalism). Kathleen Geldard’s costumes are nicely appropriate, with Marc buttoned-up in his vest and tie and Ivan suitably scruffy in his middle-aged leather. The production comes close, and it’s enjoyable enough, but it lacks the depth to really make us look beyond the superficial.
Art is at Signature Theatre through May 22; tickets ($61 to $81) are available at Signature’s Web site.