THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
STAGE REVIEW

‘Art’ gives surface treatment to deep questions

Kevin Sprague Michael Countryman (left) and David Garrison in the Barrington Stage Company production of “Art.’’ Kevin Sprague
Michael Countryman (left) and David Garrison in the Barrington Stage Company production of “Art.’’ (Kevin Sprague)
By Louise Kennedy
Globe Staff / July 31, 2010

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PITTSFIELD — The smooth, finely crafted, and provocative surface of Yasmina Reza’s play “Art’’ resembles nothing so much as the white-on-white painting over which its three characters battle. Is it a brilliant creation worth a small fortune, full of deeper meaning invisible to all but the cognoscenti, or is it a hollow joke, an empty symbol of our intellectually empty times?

Like the fictional painting at its center, the play has certainly achieved huge success since its 1995 Paris premiere. It won the 1998 Tony Award for best play, has been translated into more than 30 languages, and has been performed all over the world. Now it’s playing at Barrington Stage Company, where its superficial attractions will surely delight summer theatergoers, but where the question of its lasting value still seems very much up for grabs.

In some ways, that’s OK. Henry Wishcamper directs the able cast skillfully, with many nice bits of characterization fleshing out Reza’s deliberately blank slates: Although her script reveals few facts about the three men besides first name, profession, and marital status, Bryan Avers, Michael Countryman, and David Garrison create distinctive personalities from the scarce data they’re given.

Garrison plays Serge, the well-off dermatologist who ignites a furious debate by paying 200,000 francs (the play is set in the pre-euro Paris of 1994) for a painting by the fictional artist Antrios — a painting that Serge insists contains many subtle shades, though his friend Marc (Countryman), an aeronautical engineer, sees only a 4-foot-by-5-foot canvas painted white, with diagonal lines, also white, barely discernible on its surface. A third friend, Yvan (Avers), who’s a textile expert turned stationery salesman and about to be married, seems not quite sure which side of the argument he’s on.

That, as it turns out, is the real crux of the play. Despite its title, “Art’’ is not so much about art as it is about friendship, and specifically male friendship of the competitive, insecure, and often passively hostile sort. Marc, we gradually gather, has served as a kind of intellectual mentor to Serge and is now enraged by his friend’s embrace of an art movement he sees as vacuous and false; Serge has admired Marc but is chafing under his air of superiority, and Yvan looks up to both of them while secretly feeling inferior (and therefore, of course, resentful, too).

All this plays out amusingly, as do the characters’ more florid neuroses; a long, increasingly frenzied comic monologue by Serge, about a crisis over including the stepmothers’ names on the wedding invitations, is particularly hilarious. The actors here deliver Reza’s razor-sharp lines with impeccable timing, and they play wonderfully off one another; it’s easy to admire their craft even as it’s making you laugh.

What’s not so easy is to find any more profound meaning or lasting connection — either among the three men or between their story and our own. That wouldn’t matter if Reza aspired merely to write a light comedy, but in “Art’’ — as in her more recent Tony winner, “God of Carnage,’’ which to me suffers from the same emotional frigidity — she seems interested in probing larger questions about aesthetic and human values. And if a play is going to raise those questions, it should at least provoke some thought about how each of us might answer them.

“Art’’ doesn’t, not really; it’s not nearly as smart as it thinks it is in laying out the lines of discussion about, say, a modern painting executed entirely in white. It’s easy to get a cheap laugh out of such an artifact, but it would be more interesting to engage sincerely with the argument that such a painting does, in fact, affect some viewers deeply, on both an aesthetic and emotional level. By the same token, a real examination of male friendship would give us some hint of why and how these very different men first came together, what binds them beyond shared tastes or happenstance, and whether friendships can survive a heartfelt and serious argument.

Instead, “Art’’ skitters stylishly along the surface of such issues — where, it must be said, the Barrington production strikes a few jarring visual notes that seem at odds with Reza’s intent but don’t add any content of their own. Why does costume designer Jenny Mannis dress these sophisticated Parisian men in borderline-sleazy print shirts and unflattering pleated slacks? And why, when the script specifies an apartment “as stripped down and neutral as possible,’’ does Robin Vest’s set feature classical moldings and an entrance hall bedecked with a gaudy vase, a mirror, and a hideously patterned carpet runner on the stairs?

But these are superficial questions, easily ignored amid the laughs. The one that lingers is a little deeper. “Art’’ is entertaining. But is it art?

Louise Kennedy can be reached at kennedy@globe.com.

ART Play by Yasmina Reza

Translated by Christopher Hampton

Directed by: Henry Wishcamper. Set, Robin Vest. Costumes, Jenny Mannis. Lights, Matthew Richards. Music and sound, Bart Fasbender.

At: Barrington Stage Company, Pittsfield, through Aug. 7. Tickets: $15-56. 413-236-8888, www.barringtonstageco.org