Jewish Journal

The Artistry of ‘Art’

All the accolades for "Art" and its cast -- from left, Victor Garber, Alfred Molina and Alan Alda -- are deserved.

by Gene Lichtenstein

Posted on Jan. 21, 1999 at 7:00 pm

The internationally acclaimed play, "Art," arrived at the UCLA/Doolittle Theatre in Hollywood this past week with tremendous advance billing. Hosannahs for the original Paris production; a grand salute for the London staging; the Tony Award plus the 1998 New York Drama Critics Circle Award for best play. Now the three-character comedy has landed in our city for an eight-week run with the original New York cast -- Alan Alda, Victor Garber and Alfred Molina. And, yes, all the accolades are deserved.

The brilliantly constructed comedy follows three friends and the undoing of their relationship(s) when one of them acquires a work of contemporary art -- an all-white painting -- for 200,000 francs (about $35,000.) The reaction of the two friends to Serge's (Victor Garber) purchase challenges the nature of their friendship, delineating for us the shadings of each character and just how these play into everyone's needs. Before the evening is over, we discover the "true" feelings about one man's wife, another's fiancee, a third's smug pretentiousness. All done at breakneck speed and on a comic high wire.

In essence, "Art" is a dazzling portrait of three characters, and the present actors are wonderful to watch. Alda is the successful, cranky, outraged father figure who turns furious at his friend when he is shown the "great new work of art." To him, the painting is junk, the worshipful description, jargon, and his friend's solemnity, a personal betrayal. Garber's Serge is equally outraged. A dermatologist, he is controlled, uptight and quick to anger. He and Alda are the principal antagonists. Molina's Ivan is their necessary friend: the failed nebbish, the conciliator without an opinion of his own, the jokey figure they help and patronize, in turn.

The actors play off of one another with ease and familiarity. And each, in his own way, is splendid. Nevertheless, a few niggling comments about the performances the evening I saw the play (Monday): Garber, an actor I like seeing on stage, had his timing down pat. Brittle fury. But it was keyed to the play, not the rhythm of the performances on stage that evening. Molina, who arguably has the play's most comic, theatrical scene -- a nonstop, rapid account of a telephone conversation with his mother about the invitation for his forthcoming wedding -- blew it midway through the riff. The words became part of a "schtick" played for laughs and less connected to character. Even Alda, a delight here, faltered. In the early part of the play, he rants about the preposterous price, 200,000 francs. Later, in what I took to be a slip, he refers to the 200,000 grand.

These are minor flaws in a play that I heartily recommend. They suggest to me that the cast is sailing on past performances and needs some reinvigorating; perhaps some sharp toning up with director Matthew Warchus, who also staged the acclaimed 1996 production in London.

A word about some of the people behind the scene. The playwright, Yasmina Reza, is Iranian, studied mime in Paris and wrote this and several other plays in French. She has written a screenplay and a novel, also in French.

The translation by Christopher Hampton is first-rate, with colloquial English and word play that made me believe the play was originally American. Mark Thompson's set is spare and functional and, in keeping with the play, designed in off shades of white. "Art" runs through March 14. Do yourself a favor: Go see it.

"Art" is at the UCLA/Doolittle Theatre, 1615 North Vine Street, Hollywood. Tickets are available at TeleCharge: (800) 447-7400.

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