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Theatre Reviews Soulpepper’s production of Art is fun, but easy to brush off

Oliver Dennis, left, as Marc and Diego Matamoros as Serge.

Dahlia Katz/Handout

  • Title: Art
  • Written by: Yasmina Reza
  • Directed by: Philip Akin
  • Starring: Diego Matamoros, Oliver Dennis and Huse Madhavji
  • Venue: Young Centre for the Performing Arts

rating

Yasmina Reza’s 1994 play Art, playing in Toronto until Sept. 7 at Soulpepper’s Young Centre for the Performing Arts, is about one of the most traumatic events a modern friendship can face – the discovery that you and your best friend don’t like the same stuff.

Serge, a successful dermatologist (a relaxed Diego Matamoros) has purchased a very expensive painting – a white canvas that is completely blank except for a faint white diagonal line that crosses it. His friend Marc (Oliver Dennis, channelling Niles Crane) is “disturbed” by this $200,000 purchase, which he dismisses as garbage, and this disagreement shakes the foundation of their 15-year-old friendship, especially after they rope in their unstable younger friend Yvan (Huse Madhavji) to choose sides.

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The story was inspired by an incident in the playwright’s own life when a friend of Reza’s excitedly invited her over to see his latest acquisition – a plain white painting. Reza laughed at the absurdity of his purchase, and her friend laughed too. So she decided to write a play about what might have happened if he hadn’t.

Huse Madhavji, right, plays Yvan, Serge and Marc's unstable younger friend.

Dahlia Katz

In Christopher Hampton’s translation (which premiered in London’s West End in 1996, a production that ran for eight years), the dialogue has a proto-Aaron Sorkin rhythm, snappy and repetitive, and the production moves along at an enjoyable clip.

In director Philip Akin’s appropriately sparse production, Hampton’s zippy dialogue does the heavy lifting (Dennis, Matamoros and Madhavji certainly have enough comic timing to land the frequent zingers), with an assist from some welcome physical comedy – one of the funniest moments is when Serge and Marc attempt to physically fight each other, gingerly holding one another off by the shoulders.

Appropriately enough for a play about the impact of the visual, Akin treats his stage as a canvas, often landing on some lovely stage pictures, like the three men sitting at complementary angles on the couch, gazing at the painting.

Reza doesn’t offer any real backstory around the friendship of these erudite (occasionally pretentious) men, but Dennis and Matamoros have a natural chemistry that convinces one of a decades-long bond and gives the audience a reason to root for their reconciliation. Dennis manages to be touching and priggish at once, when he admits that the reason he can’t fathom that Serge is serious about the painting is that he loves Serge, and he can’t imagine anyone he loves loving such an absurd piece of art.

Art becomes tiresome when the characters face off.

Dahlia Katz/Handout

The production is strongest in its first half, when the scenes are alternating two-handers between the three characters, separated by several well-timed asides and monologues addressed to the audience. When all three characters face off together, the proceedings become shrill and tiresome. (My theatre-going companion observed that it reminded her of a platonic-male – and less booze-fuelled – version of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) The audience at the performance I saw applauded for so long at the cathartic punchline at the end of the penultimate scene that half of them seemed surprised that there was still one more scene to go.

But why stage this quarter-century-old satire now? Unfortunately, this production fails to answer that question. Art was last seen in Toronto in 2010, when Morris Panych directed a much-lauded production for the Canadian Stage Company. Nine years later, it’s a pleasant enough way to spend 90 minutes, but it can be hard to stay invested in the trivial squabbles of three well-off middle-aged men. Ultimately, this production fails to find anything new or revelatory about the human relationship with art. Even the debate of “what is art” and what is it worth feels a bit dated when just last year, Banksy arranged for one of his works to be shredded upon auction, which only resulted in the shredded painting being worth more money. In his program note, Akin cites a quote that “art is there for us to connect with.” Unfortunately, there’s not a lot to connect with here.

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