Sunday, March 8, 2015

They don't know much about friendship, but they know what they like: Carmel Theatre Company presents Yazmina Reza's "Art"

Evan, Marc and Serge weigh their responses to a painting — and to one another — in Carmel Theatre Company's "Art."
If we didn't need validation, we wouldn't need either art or friends. But in Yazmina Reza's "Art," the indelible human appetite for all three becomes entangled — with results both funny and sad.

Midway through a nine-performance run when seen Saturday night, the Carmel Theatre Company production gets all the details right in presenting this intricate tussle among three Parisian buddies.

The trigger in the crisis between Marc and Serge, played with well-calibrated tension by Larry Adams and Daniel Shock, respectively, is Serge's purchase of a painting by a fashionable artist for 200,000 francs.

The playwright has thus brought to bear upon the conflict two major causes of the way human beings separate themselves from others: wealth and prestige.  But there is another element in the rift that trumps everything: The expensive art is a white-on-white painting that brings to the fore differences between the two old friends on all matters of value. What you see is not what you get, necessarily.

One measure of the strength of our friendships is the degree to which we share value.  Some amount  of sharing seems to be necessary, because we look to our friends for validation of who we are.  Their judgments on what we like — even if apparently not essential to the friendship — may give us either confirming or shattering information. In the latter case, there is much pain: We would just as soon keep unresolved issues about our identity to ourselves.

The deeper psychological level is exposed when a crisis involving the third friend, Evan, emerges. Played with winning intensity and vulnerability by Clay Mabbitt, Evan is insecure professionally and personally. About to get married and adjusting to a new job he has no positive feeling for, Evan cannot make strong enough use of his basic likability to avoid being victimized by Serge and Marc's spat.

Reza's main insight, nicely massaged to a tingle under Ken Klingenmeier's direction, is that a personality seen as neutral, and even potentially helpful, in a dispute between friends may rub them the wrong way and worsen the problem. As becomes clear in the course of a contentious evening in Serge's apartment, Evan is pressed into service as the whipping boy for both combatants.

The course of this serious business is strewn with humor. The production plays skillfully upon the audience's sense of the ridiculous. The men analyze minutely what each other is saying, using  their tortured interpretations as weapons in the struggle. Old memories are dredged up in support. Tone of voice is scrutinized mercilessly. Their tastes in women and their sense of propriety are mutually assailed. Aesthetics become almost a side issue. The white-on-white painting turns symbolically into a space through which everything, as well as nothing, may pass.

"Art" is quite talky, but the actors' movement about the shallow stage keeps the show from seeming static. There are rushed speeches and deliberate ones spread across a wide spectrum of expression. The relentless rhythm of this three-way quarrel perks you up slightly more than it wears you down.

Reza is fond of probing  the potential importance of events that are on some level trivial — like the playground dispute that lights a fuse under modern parenting in "God of Carnage." This production takes her project seriously — a considerable challenge, as the playwright's manner is both realistic and fanciful.

Particularly with "Art," one may be tempted to ask whether male quarrels — at least among straight American men — ever play out like this. Many men will walk away from endangered friendships well before they are forced to dig up the emotional Astroturf.  This play invites us to admit that true friendship may be better tested by slogging through its worst trials than  by simply "moving on" and nursing our wounds in stoical privacy.

Our perceptions may vary from our friends', but perhaps what we learn is what we get. Why avoid that?  How many chances do we expect to have anyway?

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