Even when it literally depicts nothing, modern art can still succeed at being controversial.

In an engaging production this weekend directed by Bix Bettwy ’08, Yasmine Reza’s Tony-award winning “Art” focuses on the rupturing ties between three long-time friends. Tensions among them begin to arise after Serge (Bobby Allen ’09), a self-proclaimed connoisseur of modern art, buys an expensive painting which is actually nothing more than a blank white canvas. Outraged, Marc (Andrew Ash ’08) makes fun of the painting and his friend’s definition of art, instigating a series of clashes between himself and Serge based on their refusal to respect each other’s differing opinions. Yvan (Matthew Kozlark ’08), in an attempt to preserve their friendship, assumes the dual role of umpire in the ensuing argument and outlet for his friends’ anger and frustration.

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The set consists of a few items of furniture and the special effects are limited to colorful spotlights, so the actors are forced to carry the weight of the production, and this cast manages it well. Ash convincingly portrays a self-centered and bitingly sarcastic Marc, who considers himself to be Serge’s mentor and an indisputable authority on all things art. Kozlark’s long rant, during which he maintains a state of total hysteria for several minutes — shouting out an almost unintelligible and disjointed account of a particularly upsetting phone conversation with his mother — is slightly overdone but also makes the explanation for Yvan’s six year stint in therapy perfectly clear. Finally, Allen’s portrayal of Serge’s fascination with the new addition to his art collection is oddly amusing. The characters are so vivid and quirky that the audience is ready to forgive the actors if their laughter sometimes sounds artificial or their gesticulations appear forced.

Even though “Art” is classified as a comedy, it isn’t entertaining and relaxing like most mindless television comedies. It is funny, but in a witty, sarcastic and even bitter way. Laughter most often arises out of disturbingly absurd situations and biting remarks. The play switches moods almost as fast as its characters do. Just when the audience is convinced that the plot has finally reached a rhythm in which the jokes will just keep piling up, “Art” abandons its light-hearted tone in order to plunge into a serious, thought-provoking discussion of the nature of friendship.

As far as relationships between long-term friends go, “Art” focuses on the gritty, often universal, details of everyday interaction. The audience witnesses awkward silences, pointless banter and even physical fighting, and cannot help but realize that it all looks terribly familiar. Precisely because everything is so believable and easy to relate to, it prompts a constant, nagging sense of deja vu. While the friends snap at, mock, taunt and insult each other, it’s almost impossible for the audience not to space out and slip into recollections of similarly unpleasant scenes from personal experience. For this reason, while most theatrical works can easily be separated from reality by the convenient self-assurance of its scriptedness, this play might keep some people wondering about what exactly their “friends” talk about when they’re not around.

“Could we try to steer clear of pathos?” Serge asks near the end of the production.

In terms of the play itself, the answer is mostly yes, but not always. Such a portrait of the deterioration of a 15-year-old friendship, burdened with the personal issues of three clearly troubled people is a time bomb, doomed to eventually slip into emotional and philosophical musings. In this case, high drama creeps on stage towards the end thanks to Yvan’s and Marc’s final monologues. While it is not illogical given the subject matter, and is hardly intense enough to ruin the overall effect of the play, this extra touch of the pathetic might make the audience wish the script hadn’t felt the sudden urge to be poetic and turn the infamous painting into a deep metaphor. After all, it’s just a blank canvas.