Photo by Carol RoseggLet's be fair: Had Yasmina Reza's charming chamber comedy Art premiered here on a shoestring budget at, say, the 99-seat Odyssey or Hudson Theater, rather than at the tony Doolittle, it would be couched in a different frame, with less hype and lower expectations. Instead, it prances into town on the heels of stagings in Paris, London and New York, not to mention its translation into 20 languages, or its Molière, Olivier, Evening Standard, Tony and New York Drama Critics Circle awards — all for best play.

Meanwhile, your powers of observation need a tune-up if you haven't noticed the banners along our boulevards proclaiming the play's arrival — and featuring Alan Alda, Alfred Molina and Victor Garber (Art's three stars from the Broadway production) quizzically gazing down at L.A.'s traffic from their flagpoled vantage. This is the kind of hoopla the city generally reserves for Esa-Pekka Salonen or Pablo Picasso. Which, of course, raises the question: What is all the fuss about?

After viewing Reza's 90-minute theatrical minuet, this, among other questions, remains unanswered. At play's start, Serge (Garber), a Parisian dermatologist with a penchant for modernist aesthetics, has just wiped out his discretionary funds for the next several months with the 200,000-franc purchase of a canvas by a little-known painter. As an investment, it's next to useless — or at best, wildly speculative.

“Why did I buy it if I didn't love it?” he rhetorically asks his former mentor and soon-to-be-former friend, an aeronautical engineer named Marc (Alda). Marc, a classicist in the dusk of his life, believes in the conventions of form and color, so when Serge reveals the painting — a frameless white canvas streaked with diagonal white stripes (the white-on-white motif can be discerned only from the subtle variations of texture) — Marc wheezes with laughter at his friend's gullibility, dismissing the work as “a piece of shit.” So begins their duel, umpired with charming ineptitude by their mutual companion, Yvan (Molina), a failed entrepreneur in his 40s who's about to be trapped into both a stressful marriage and a career peddling stationery supplies for his uncle.

The painting is the catalyst for the dismantling of a 15-year alliance among the trio. As they presume to reveal its charms and failings, it, of course, reveals theirs; as they mock it, it mocks them back; as they discern its abstract grace, it, in turn, rewards them with a grace of their own. Reza's play is about perception, while also being a light comedy about arrogance and anxiety, epiphany and oblivion.

All of which makes Art sound like a much richer — and perhaps better — play than the one on view at the Doolittle.

First, all of Art's characters are pretentious, petty or neurotic enough to be natural comedic targets — not just because of how they see (or don't see) Serge's lunatic purchase, but because of how swiftly their haughty airs keep melting into nervous umbrage at being snubbed. The arrogance and rage they express throughout the play is almost entirely focused on the arrogance of other people, as though each of them, in his cavernous apartment, black silk shirts, wool jackets and matching trousers, sees himself as the salt of the earth. This is the crux of Reza's extended joke on pretense and insecurity — a funny, if obvious, satire.

The word smug crops up repeatedly, and contemptuously, at the tail end of all three characters' complaints. Late in the play, Serge launches into a tirade against the “calculated, wearily malicious” way Marc's “worse than repellent” live-in companion, Paula, waves away cigarette smoke. “You've partnered yourself with a life-denying woman,” he concludes, absurdly.

Garber's earnest soldier Serge is the perfect foil for Alda's sarcastic, hunch-shouldered Marc. Together, they're an uptown version of Pinter's grubby assassins in The Dumbwaiter, the difference in tone being that between menace and mere annoyance. Reza's characters weave ludicrous dissertations from the pettiest of anxieties, thereby forming the building blocks of the play's psychological architecture. What appears to be a comedy of ideas is actually driven by neuroses, in what could be called the Theater of the Effete. Stir in the sitcom repartee of Christopher Hampton's translation from the French, filled with carefully calibrated repetitions, and you've got Seinfeld with a cogent world view. (“You find the colors touching?” “Yes, I find the colors touching!” Marc and Yvan repeat half a dozen times, tensions rising, backcourt in full press, until Marc sinks the rim shot: “There are no colors!”)

I like Seinfeld a lot, but I would never advocate filling the streets with flags on its behalf.

The strangest aspect of Art is that of having spent so much stage time with just three characters, only to leave the theater knowing so little about — and feeling very little for — them. That Marc fails to distinguish between modernist and conceptual art is, I suppose, an aesthetic-philosophical nugget worth holding on to, as is his professorial query “What are [people] aside from my faith in them?” insofar as it reveals an alarming solipsism. But one could arrive at such truths over breakfast with a casual acquaintance.

In one scene, Yvan bursts onto the stage with a maniacal comic soliloquy about a crisis over his wedding invitations. The other two principals step back to give him the stage as he spews, goggle-eyed, his domestic woes. Molina receives a well-deserved ovation for the effort, an acknowledgment of his aria as well as of its impressive artifice — the kind of artifice that Matthew Warchus' clinical staging emphasizes throughout the evening.

Indeed, the production gleams with stylization, with the neo-Teutonic feel of European works that keep cropping up at festivals in Edinburgh and Avignon. The bleached, trapezoidal playing area; Gary Yershon's kitschy/retro xylophone-centered music accompanying the scene transitions; the single tones of Mic Pool's sound design decorating the internal monologues . . . this could easily be Peter Stein directing. The snowy living-room furniture and looming upstage panels of Mark Thompson's set — slices of wall that spin to distinguish each of the men's apartments from the others' — contrast effectively with Thompson's silky costumes, calibrated in monochromatic colors to depict the trio as a single organism. Hugh Vanstone's pristine lights cast nary a shadow, except for the angled stripes sweeping across Serge's room, matching his new painting.

This is all quite beautiful to watch, but prevents the production from addressing a question vital to the play's integrity: We know why these three men are spiraling away from each other, but unless we understand, on some emotional level, why they bonded 15 years ago, there's little at stake when they self-destruct. The play, in the modernist tradition, contains very little back-tell: History is revealed through snippets of dialogue, through interactions, through gestures. Flecks of emotion, of color, have been bleached in white light, presumably in the interest of metaphor and style. Consequently, the play flies on its wit, only to circle around the Beckettian despair in which it so clearly wishes to land.

“Nothing formative in the world, nothing great or beautiful in the world, has ever been born of rational argument,” Yvan remarks in a lament near play's end. A line of such beauty should render an audience helpless — and would, were he talking about the loss of a friendship that seemed to matter.
The 20th annual L.A. Weekly Theater Awards, with Circle X Theater Company, the cast of Naked Boys Singing!, Chris Wells, Karen Finley, Pasadena Shakespeare Company and more, will be held at the Los Angeles Theater Center, 514 S. Spring St., downtown, on Monday, April 19, beginning at 7:30 p.m. (doors open at 7 p.m.); reception to follow. Admission for all nominees plus one guest is free; for all others, $12. All queries and RSVPs can be made on the Awards hot line: (323) 993-3693. Please make checks payable to L.A. Weekly, c/o Lisa Yu, 6715 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90028. Checks must be received by April 4.

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