Theatre ReviewsTom Williams


By Yasmina Reza
Translated by Christopher Hampton
Directed by Rick Snyder
At Steppenwolf’s Upstairs Theatre

Outstanding performances transcend the script in Art


Art, written my a French female, Yasmina Reza, deals with the reaction of three supposed  friends to a painting purchased by one of them for a large sum. Art, of course, tests the depth and validity of the friendship between the three men. Serge (John Procaccino) is a self-proclaimed expert in modern art. He is a dermatologist who sees the world and his painting on the surface. The work is a 5’ X 4’ white canvas with subtle traces of brush strokes (essentially completely white on white). Serge proudly sees all kinds of colors and depths and nuances in this work. When his friend and mentor Marc (Francis Guinan) laughs loudly—thinking Serge is making a joke by displaying the blank white canvas—Serge reacts with an escalating verbal attacks on Marc and his world views and his personality. Marc, as expected, turns the assault back on Serge in a series of insults, character attacks and biting personal observations. Marc is an aeronautical engineer steeped in detail and the long view of the world whose taste in art is in detailed landscapes.


When Yvan ( K. Todd Freeman) views the painting, he senses that Serge is quite proud and since Yvan is a people-pleaser who works in textiles, he agrees that the painting is ‘moving.’ Yvan is a weak-willed soul devoid of backbone. Eventually, both Marc and Serge insult Yvan in a series of outrages personal observations that makes Yvan cry. Friends wouldn’t do that to one another or would they?


The sparks fly when the three meet for dinner at Serge’s place. What makes this expertly acted play hard for me to handle is the false premise by playwright Yasmina Reza that, I surmise, comes from her female perspective on friendship. She creates male characters that are supposed to be long-term friends yet they have so little in common (in beliefs, tastes and attitudes) that I didn’t buy why they would be friends. What is the common bond that unites these three? Little that I can see.


Next, assuming that the three are friends, most guys would agree to disagree when something like taste in art work becomes the bases for disagreement. In most friendships, there are times when we have different takes on things. I’m a sports fan and many of my artistic friends hate sports; my close friend and I often disagree about the quality of a play we both witnessed. So, we talk, even debate the merits then agree to disagree. But, we don’t have long insulting tirades where we attack each other so sharply that we come to physicality. Men bond with commonality and these three characters seem to lack those bases leading me to conclude that they never really were friends in the first place. Therefore, as revealed in each person’s monologues (to the audience) the friendships have a weak foundation… a false premise. I believe that Reza wanted to write about her views on friendship, therefore she invented characters that she could manipulate to cover her thoughts. This show tacks enough truth to be credible. It comes off as lots of ‘playwright speak’—not truthful character dialogue.


Yes, there are ‘deconstructions’ of friendship and the nature of how conflict in Art that can surly test the depth of friendship presented here with witty, intelligent and emotionally stinging language. The power of perception, imagination and personality are brilliantly presented as is the personal need for friendship to be a vindication and affirmed to one’s personal beliefs. We do want our friends to think like we do and believe what we believe.  Reza has some fine insights into the true nature of friendship if one can buy her set up. However, I doubt that most men would go to the depths these guys sink to and then go to dinner with one another afterward. If they really are so vicious in their attacks, they’d storm out realizing that they never were friends in the first place.


Francis Guinan, John Procaccino and K. Todd Freeman gave astonishingly complete performances ringing honesty and vulnerability to their characters. I’m recommending that you see Art because it contains terrific acting with smart writing despite the false premise. Art is either a ‘love it’ or ‘hate it’ show depending on your take on the premise.


I loved the production: the set (by Antje Ellermann) and the acting. I question Reza’s characters friendship. See it and you be the judge. There is enough meat here for you to chew.




Tom Williams


At Steppenwolf’s Upstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St., Chicago, IL, Call 312033501650, www.steppenwolf.orgTuesdays through Sundays at 7:30 pm, Saturday & Sunday matinees at 3 pm, Wednesday matinees at 2 pm, Running time is 90 minutes without intermission.

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