Clever 'Art' Tests Ties of Friendship

The stripped-down stage at the Royale Theatre in New York, where "Art" is showing, reflects playwright Yasmina Reza's vision of theater. Elaborate settings, a large cast, or even a complex story have no part in this production. Reza knows these elements aren't essential to tell a story that speaks to the heart and stimulates the mind.

"Art," which was first staged in Paris and has been running for two years in London, where it received a 1996 Olivier Award, is a short, serious play, disguised as a clever comedy.

It revolves around three male friends - Serge, Marc, and Yvan - who find their 15-year relationship tested when Serge buys a white-on-white painting for a large sum of money. He shows off his prize, thinking he has one-upped his friends with his avant-garde taste.

Marc's and Yvan's reactions stoke tensions, especially when Marc dissolves into hysterics at Serge's gullibility and Yvan, the peacemaker, offers an equivocal opinion, which angers everyone.

On the surface, the subject of the play is the vagaries of modern art, but the issues go beyond taste into Serge's need to be validated by the people closest to him. When they let him down, "Art" escalates into an examination of friendship - its demands, obligations, and, ultimately, its rewards. The play scrapes bare the feelings here, despite the sugarcoating of gags.

"Art," which has been translated from the French by Christopher Hampton, is filled from first curtain to ending with a dazzling array of language.

The quips, fast comebacks, instantaneous changes of mood, whining, laughing jags, and tears are prompted by the ties that bind men and show how their friendships are preserved, no matter the severity of the strains.

Under the direction of Matthew Warchus, who also staged the London production, the cascading emotions among the men are brilliantly timed.

The casting is fine, with Alan Alda in his return to live theater as the childish Marc, a man who won't play the game unless he calls the rules; Victor Garber as Serge, the consummate sophisticate but the most resilient among them; and Alfred Molina as the looser, Yvan, the showiest role. Molina's long speech about the problems with wording his wedding invitation is a tour de force of self-revelation that deserves an award in itself.

With the precarious status of nonmusicals on Broadway, it remains to be seen whether a play like "Art," which offers ideas to ponder after the curtain is down, will secure a long run.

Only one-third of the current and coming spring attractions in New York's commercial theaters are dramas or comedies, a harder sell than the spectacles of sound, song, and scenery that pack in the audiences.

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