You won’t find a smarter, sleeker production of Yasmina Reza’s award winning ART (translated by Christopher Hampton) than the one at Arts After Hours (running through March 19th). Where is Arts After Hours, you ask? It’s in Lynn, a burb where the arts are flourishing. It’s worth the drive, as is the Peabody Essex Museum (my favorite Massachusetts museum), next door in Salem. You could do both in the same day. Both are connected by Reza’s play.
ART is a fast little comedy-with-drama which pits three friends of longstanding against each other because of a painting: a seemingly all white canvas which the most prosperous of the three has purchased for $200,000. If you’re thinking The Emperor’s New Clothes, so is the collector’s best friend… and he says so in no uncertain terms. And as you might have guessed, the collector takes great umbrage.
So, do you support your friends even when you think they’ve embarked on a fool’s errand? Do you question their judgment? That conundrum is at the heart of the play—as is the age old argument about what exactly makes something “art.” Marcel Duchamp challenged preconceptions of “what art is” by presenting a “ready made” toilet at an exhibition in 1917. Kasimir Malevich’s 1918 “white on white” paintings (the inspiration for the artwork in Reza’s play) certainly took abstract painting to great lengths to achieve “purity of form.”
Director Fran Weinberg’s production is fiercely intelligent, with three remarkable actors seamlessly inhabiting their roles. Anthony Mullin makes the collector elegant and arrogant, the kind of man who never makes a mistake. (Of course, when he realizes that he has, it’s all the more satisfying for the audience.) Jason Myatt gives an extraordinary performance as the friend who can’t hide his contempt for the painting, and therefore, for its proud new owner despite a fifteen year friendship. When the fur flies and the collector hurls insults back at him, Myatt shows us he’s wounded to the core, his face registering genuine shock, hurt and even surprise.
Thomas Grenon has the plum role of the reluctant mediator, the guy who just wants everyone to get along. Try as he might to intercede, he fails so brilliantly that he himself becomes the target of their wrath. Grenon has a hilarious monologue about the women who are tormenting him nonstop over wedding plans, portraying first his nasty, disagreeable mother, then his domineering, unrelenting fiancé. Poor man, there’s no peace even with his friends. He can’t find respite anywhere.
William Endslow’s revolving wall makes scene changes effortless. The director deliberately calls attention to them by having the actors notice the new incoming wall—which translates to even more delightful humor when the collector spies an encroaching, inferior painting. Jeff Gardiner’s evocative lighting makes the inexpensive painting appear garish (at least to me as a fan of abstract art) and guides us to the characters’ inner thoughts. All the elements in Weinberg’s production conspire to sculpt a lovely, thoughtful work of ART.