Nelson Pressley reviews Yasmina Reza’s ‘Art’ at Signature Theatre


Mitchell Hebert, John Lescault and Michael Russotto in “Art” at Signature Theatre. (SUSAN BIDDLE/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

In Signature Theatre’s crisp, chic revival of the reliable 1994 French comedy “Art,” ye shall know the three friends who come unglued over a white-on-white painting by the way they wear their shirts.

Serge, the forward-thinking collector who has just bought the painting for a jaw-dropping price, fashionably keeps the collar of his black shirt open. Not so for Marc, Serge’s longtime pal. Marc, a traditionalist who likes figures in his landscapes, is fully buttoned up, with a necktie. He hates Serge’s painting, which makes him wonder if perhaps now he hates Serge. Their friend Yvan waffles about the painting, and about much else in life. He droops around with his shirttail out. (The attractive costumes for these upscale Frenchmen are by Kathleen Geldard.)

If the clothing can so nearly make the men, does that mean that playwright Yasmina Reza’s play is precise, or oversimplified? That’s the kind of question — along with whether her works are genuinely philosophical or merely knowing — that has dogged Reza since “Art” and its English translation by Christopher Hampton became an international phenomenon in the 1990s.

Director Matthew Gardiner’s smooth production settles nothing, but it reaffirms the near-foolproof, crowd-pleasing nature of the piece. The white canvas is a brilliant flash point; it’s hard to think of many scripts that have launched into the basic conflict as cleanly, rapidly and drolly as “Art,” with Serge proudly flaunting the canvas while Marc squints and winces and the audience laughs. Cast this play well, and you’re practically home.

Indeed, Gardiner’s three actors handle Reza’s prickly dialogue like archers, with punch lines and insults whistling through the air and piercing their targets. John Lescault brims with confidence and sophistication as Serge, his chin slightly up as he assesses Marc’s unexpectedly personal critiques. As Marc, Mitchell Hebert’s near-genius with angst is ideal: Hebert’s perpetually pained expression reads like cosmic heartburn, and each zinger about the art and the friendship is meticulously crafted, a smart bomb of intellectual and egotistical discontent.

Yvan is the clown of the group, which is probably more rewarding to play in big houses than in such an intimate space as Signature’s roughly 100-seat Ark. (The almost unavoidably tight confines of James Kronzer’s set — an apartment that stands for various guys’ pads — limits movement a bit.) Nonetheless, Michael Russotto gives a bright, open performance that appealingly supplies the emotional counterpoint for the often dry sniping between culture warriors Serge and Marc.

And so “Art” sails along, funny, engaging and devilishly efficient. Brittle and slight? Or pointed and crafty? Audiences will no doubt debate on the way home, and with the playwright’s latest hit, “God of Carnage,” slotted for next spring, Signature — suddenly the local House of Reza — is banking on them to come back for more.

Pressley is a freelance writer.

Art

By Yasmina Reza. Directed by Matthew Gardiner. Lighting design, Mark Lanks; sound, Matt Rowe; original music, Peter Lerman. Through May 22 at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington. Call 703-573-7328 or visit www.signature-theatre.org.

First Post byline, 1992; covering theater for the Post since 1999. His book "American Playwriting and the Anti-Political Prejudice" will be published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2014.

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