On Wednesday night I walked into the Underbrook in Saybrook College. The stage was set for a confrontation — two armchairs on the opposite side of the stage with a space in the middle. A bookcase stood on stage right. One could easily see James Joyce’s “Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man” resting conspicuously on another title: CELL. On the bottom part of the bookcase I saw Nietzsche’s collection, which seemed to suggest, “Love is blind, and friendship closes its eyes.” This was a staging of “Art,” a one-act comedy by Yasmina Reza directed by Irina Gavrilova ’17.
The play is about three friends: Serge, Marc and Yvan. Serge buys an Antrios painting, which depicts fine white lines on a white canvas. Serge is proud of his acquisition, but Marc thinks it is a piece of “shit”. Yvan neither hates nor likes the painting. But he does not want to be on Marc’s side, so he pretends that the painting is captivating to anger him. The question of whether this painting is worth the 200,000 francs Serge paid for it puts the men’s friendship to the test.
Serge (Ivan Kirwan-Taylor ’18) is smart and arrogant. His demeanor is belittling. The painting is probably his first piece as a “collector.” Marc (Dillon Miller ’18) is no different. He is self-confident and he thinks others are wrong about the painting. He wants Yvan to feel the same way he does about the painting. Yvan (Tom Cusano ’18) is naive.
The playwright establishes these differences about the actors around ten minutes into the play. The rest of the play presents disjointed arguments that are not based on any topic. Serge and Marc argue about what one likes and what the other dislikes. They complain about each other and reveal their hatred for one another. One wonders how they became friends; what kind of friends invest their energies in demeaning each other? One may easily mistake Kirwan-Taylor, Miller and Cusano for professional actors, even though this is their first performance. Their voices are clear, despite going through fierce verbal exchanges.
Their characters’ lives seem to emerge straight from scripts. Serge, Marc and Yvan all adopt a confrontational voice. At some point they rise to an angry pitch that grows monotonous. Save for the occasions when they talk directly to the audience, a major part of “Art” is dull.
When Yvan’s speech breaks into an emotional appeal, one wonders whether he is under the influence of the wine he appears to have been drinking. He is desperate to connect with his friends and laments that he has spent most of his life “dying of loneliness.” When he asks for help, his friends advises him to leave his wife-to-be. They have no time for each other. Cusano plays the role of Yvan excellently — he knows how to be depressed and understands when to be confused. To a large extent he was the one who mainly made the audience laugh.
Serge is clearly using “Art” to vent his anger. He confesses to the audience that he does not even like the painting. He does not even attempt to explain why he considers the painting “incredibly modern,” but he wants his friends to admire it, to embrace it. Kirwan-Taylor is a perfect match for Serge — he knows how to adopt the voice of a person who has just joined high society. Throughout the play, save for the last part when he decides to listen to Marc, he maintains his self-confidence.
The focus of “Art” is on friendship — friendship fallen apart over stupidity. The Antrios painting is just a trigger. Perhaps this explains why the characters are shallow. They do not even debate the merits of the white painting.
There is no difference between the performance and the painting. If you look at it for some time, you start imagining all sorts of shading and hidden lines. But if you take a step back and examine it, it’s just a white canvas. Though at the end of the play Serge, Marc and Yvan learn to appreciate their differences, one wonders whether they have learned to untangled Yvan’s paradox: “If I am who I am because you’re who you are, and if you’re who you are because I am not who I am, then I am not who I am and you are not who you are.”