"Art" Review - Don't know art, but I know what I like

In scene: Serge, Marc and Yvan

“Art”, a one-act satire by French playwright Yasmina Reza, presented by Steppenwolf as part of its ongoing “Imagination” series, poses fascinating questions about the relationship of art and rationality.  After all, as the saying goes, you may not know art, but you know what you like. Reza’s script is peppered with the self-important witticisms and condescending critiques of art that are familiar to anyone who spends time in academic circles. This Mobius strip of judgmental exchanges ultimately reveals more about the speaker than the work of art.

The premise of the plot is wickedly simple: three long-time friends react to the purchase of a modernist painting, whitewashed canvas by “Antrios”, which one of them has purchased for the princely sum of 200,000 francs.  The play begins with a passionate debate between Serge, the proud owner, and Marc, whose visceral hatred of the work appears unduly extreme. Marc says to Serge, "You paid two hundred thousand francs for this shit?" Through their debate, mediated by a third friend, Yvan, whose opinions about the painting vary depending on who he is talking to, we learn details of their friendship, as well as observe an impassioned argument about what does and does not constitute art.

Marc and Serge discuss the painting

The witty dialogue, briskly paced by director Rick Snyder, all takes place in the characters’ apartments.  In an innovative and technically elegant set design by Antje Ellerman, all three apartments are represented as nearly-identical taupe-colored living rooms, differentiated only by the art pieces displayed within.  The objets d’art are iconographic possessions, which telegraph intellectual and social status of the owners through their “taste”.  Each room contains a painting which represents both a facet of the owner’s sensibility and an artistic style: Serge, with the white painting is a modernist; Marc, with a painting from a Dutch master is a classicist; and Yvan, whose wall is decorated by a painting done by his father, is a sentimentalist.

Preparing the set for "Art"

Although the entire action of the play takes place in their homes, this is less a drawing-room comedy than an existential one, with the characters continually asking themselves questions. Instead of answering them, they look to each other for affirmation.  As Yvan says, quoting his psychiatrist, to whom he has described the relationship between Serge and Marc: “…If I’m who I am because I’m who I am and if you’re who you are because you’re who you are, then I’m who I am and you’re who you are. If, on the other hand, I’m who I am because you’re who you are, and you’re who you are because I’m who I am, then I’m not who I am and you’re not who you are…” The tangled description makes increasing sense as Serge and Marc’s argument escalates beyond criticism of each other’s taste in art to personal character, and threatens their 15-year friendship. Eventually, the argument branches out to include Yvan, for not taking sides.

Yvan examines the painting

The three characters reveal themselves as self-absorbed, but not confident enough to be self-possessed, and in some respects the play is about possessions, not art.  The story itself is set in motion by acquisition of a possession, and at one point Marc even remarks that he thinks that Serge bought the painting as a rebuke, to show that he’s no longer a protégé – a possession – of Marc, who takes personal offense at his loss of mentor status.

At the same time, both Serge and Marc resent Yvan’s pending marriage, and they pour their own resentments into it, increasing Yvan’s normal anxiety to the breaking point.  He enters one scene, breathless, with an exasperated monologue detailing problems with his in-laws -- which rings true for anyone who’s planned a wedding, and earned uproarious applause and laughter.  The marvel of this performance is how it thoughtfully explores profound intellectual concepts while inciting heartfelt laughs.

Yvan gives his ending monologue

Through the course of the play, the relationship of the characters is deconstructed, and the conclusion seems to bring the characters back together, though the playwright remains ambivalent about the capability of rational discourse to explain our attachment to particular works of art – or to our friends and loved ones.  That makes “Art” a play for the heart as well as the mind, a rare combination indeed.  

Art, at Steppenwolf Upstairs Theater
1650 N. Halsted
Now through June 7th, 312-335-1650
(note:  all performances include a post-play discussion)

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