It is said that a lot of fights are about nothing. But in French playwright Yasmina Reza’s ingenious 1994 comedy “Art” (which won the Tony for Best Play in 1998, among other awards), three friends argue over something that truly represents the epitome of nil: painting by five feet.
Not that it is totally empty, argues a character. “If you squint, you see thin white diagonal lines,” he says.
The canvas certainly seems empty, however, from the perspective of the audience in the production the Centenary Stage Company is currently performing at the Sitnik Theater in Hackettstown. Which is fine, since “Art” isn’t really about what’s on the canvas, but what this alleged work of art does to the friendship of Serge (played by Carl Wallnau), Marc (Randall Duk Kim) and Yvan (Kevin Carolan).
Serge, a successful dermatologist, is proud to have purchased this work by a renowned artist. He actually paid 200,000 francs (equivalent to about 40,000 1994 US dollars) for it. And it seems to be, at the very least, a good financial investment: he says that a dealer is ready to pay him 220,000 francs, although he does not sell.
Marc, an aeronautical engineer, doesn’t give a damn and proclaims it bluntly “a shit”. Serge, naturally, digs in and defends him, countering that Marc isn’t sophisticated enough to appreciate him. It “complies with the laws you don’t understand,” he says.
Enter their mutual friend Yvan, a stationery salesman, who tries to play the peacemaker. He basically agrees with Marc, but says diplomatically to Serge what he wants to hear: that he feels that the painting represents “the completion of a journey”, and that “I felt a resonance when he saw her. If Serge can afford it and it makes him happy, says Yvan, what’s wrong with that?
Reza, of course, is not primarily interested in abstract art theories. She is interested in how this representation of nothingness creates a gap between these men and how they deal with it. Even the set looks like a blank page on which the characters project themselves: it is mainly Serge’s rather banal living room, even if the action sometimes moves to Marc and Yvan’s, where we then see a painting exhibited in their living room (Marc’s living room, suitably, is quite classic, while Yvan’s is a little quirky, as if to show that he doesn’t take art seriously). Each character speaks directly to the audience at different times.
“The Art” may be, on one level, a game-length argument, but Reza reaches a surprisingly dramatic climax – with a character doing something absolutely shocking – and then a satisfying ending.
“The Art” also ends up feeling more universal than you might expect at first. While not all of us can relate to this specific scenario, we all know the frustration of dealing with people who we think are totally wrong about something, but just don’t see it. People who, alas, probably think exactly the same of us.
“Art” will be at the Sitnik Theater at the Lackland Performing Arts Center in Hackettstown until March 4; visit centenarystageco.org.