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Playwright and novelist Yasmina Reza, whose own lineage covers central and eastern Europe, has made her home in Paris. Her playwriting began as a reaction to acting, but not in the usual way. She told an interviewer that she did not find acting intellectual enough; she bridled at being always “the slave of the director.” She has been writing since 1986, when her first work, Conversations After a Burial, won her two major awards. But the name Yasmina Reza was not widely known on this continent until 1994, when the unlikely trio of David Pugh, Sean Connery, and Joan Cullman first produced the play on Broadway. This production added New York to the list of international cities where Art was making an indelible impression, and packing houses with perhaps the sparsest of theatrical elements.
The current Theatre in the Park production of Art is the second occasion in a short time frame that this play has appeared in the Triangle; the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s PlayMakers Repertory Company hosted the show’s regional premiere. But what is a draw to theatergoers this time is a chance to see the show as performed by a trio that is not simply playing old friends; the cast members of this production are old friends. One of the aspects of the sparse elements of this play is a cast of only three. The other is the set; it consists of only a sofa, a chair, two tables, and three paintings. It is thus impossible to place the work anywhere in particular — any such references are nonexistent — and so it is just as likely that this show is taking place in New York as it is Paris or Berlin. Interestingly enough, it is also just as likely that it is taking place in Raleigh as it is New York. So, take a trio of excellent actors who all live in the same city, have known each other for years, and are 100 percent at home in their environment — whether that environment be set, theater, or city — and you have the potential for one of the most honest pieces of work to hit the stage this year. That the work in question is Art makes that possibility all the more real.
That the play is “deceptively simple” — as described by dramaturg Brian Santana — is a pretty large understatement. Whereas the show seems to be about the trappings and intricacies of Modern Art, as represented here by one particular painting, the real crux of this play is the relationship that binds this trio of exceedingly disparate people. Marc (Ira David Wood III), an aeronautical engineer, is what he likes to call “a man apart,” one who is more apt to critique a situation than get involved in it. It is this aspect of his personality that draws him to Serge (Eric Carl), a dermatologist, who has as one of his diversions an interest in modern — as in current — art. Even more unusual than a dermatologist having an aeronautical engineer as a best friend is that they both consider Yvan (David Henderson) a mutual best friend; and Yvan (the name is the male equivalent of Yvonne, and is so pronounced) is in no way a professional success; he is approaching what is perhaps his sixth career at the moment and (as Marc rather rudely points out) makes less in an entire year than what Serge has paid for this single painting. (Marc fails to mention that a large segment of the population are in the same boat as Yvan; Serge paid a whopping $200,000 for the work.) So, there are intricacies in this relationship that the mere presence of these men cannot begin to establish. But hold onto your seats. All — perhaps too much — will be revealed.
The play is from the outset a riotous comedy. It is also fleet — a mere 90 minutes without intermission — and downright brutal in its examination of the genre of Modern Art. But the brutality of this play does not limit itself to said genre; it is also brutally honest when it comes to this trio’s examination of their own relationships, including those outside this small circle who make an impact on this one. This includes Marc’s significant other; Yvan’s fiancée, and his mother; Yvan’s analyst; and a series of friends Serge has cultivated within the art world.
Watching these three in this work is like watching our own old friends — complete to the consternation we feel when it seems that the trio is going to rupture and discard 15 years worth of friendship over this ridiculous painting. Indeed, they even come to blows; but, this being a comedy, all is resolved in the end. Each one of these veterans has his own wonderful moments — Saturday night Henderson earned spontaneous applause for his hilarious and heroic depiction of conversations he had just had with his mother by phone — but if ever there was a play that required ensemble acting, this is it. And the sheer reality that the circumstances of this casting lend to this play make it even more engrossing than the talented script would normally do. Even the way the play is written — each character addresses us as well as the others — makes this trio its perfect cast. After all, having acted in the area for upwards of two decades each, these fellows are our old friends as well; so making us laugh, or making us cry, even, seems not so much to be exceptional acting — which it is — but simply a natural extension of their own relationships with us. So ... deceptively simple? Oh, Baby — you’d better believe it.
Theatre in the Park presents Art Thursday-Saturday, Sept. 22-24, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday, Sept. 25, at 3 p.m. in The Ira David Wood Pullen Park Theatre, 107 Pullen Rd., Raleigh, North Carolina. $18 ($12 students and seniors 55+). 919/831-6058. Note: There will be audio description at the Sept. 22nd performance. Theatre in the Park: http://www.theatreinthepark.com/2005-06_productions/art/art.htm [inactive 11/09]. Internet Broadway Database: http://www.ibdb.com/production.asp?ID=4847.
In Art, Christopher Hampton’s provocative 1996 translation of Paris-based playwright Yasmina Reza’s prize-winning 1994 play opening tonight at Theatre in the Park in Raleigh, NC, a fierce argument over an enormously expensive white-on-white painting bought by one of three friends (played by TIP executive and artistic director Ira David Wood III, Eric Carl, and David Henderson) threatens to destroy their long-time friendship. The play’s central question is, is this avant-garde painting “art”?
Born in Paris on May 1, 1959 of a Jewish Iranian-Russian father and a Hungarian mother, Yasmina Reza started writing short stories as a schoolgirl. After high school graduation, she attended the University of Paris X and the Jacques Lecoq Drama School, then found work as an actress on the French stage, but later turned to playwriting.
Art had its world premiere at the Schaubuhne in Berlin in 1994. Later that year, the play opened in Paris. Art won a prize for best foreign play in Germany; Molière Award for Best Play, Best Author, and Best Production in Paris; the 1998 Lawrence Olivier Award for best comedy in London, and the 1998 Tony Award® for Best Play on Broadway.
Inspired by the razor-sharp repartee in Yasmina Reza’s drama, Messrs. Wood, Henderson, and Carl — who play Mark, Yvan, and Serge, respectively — submitted the following three-way interview instead of our usual preview. (Serge is the wealthy dilettante whose purchase of the controversial painting outrages his long-time friend and fellow art aficionado Mark and forces Yvan, an art-naïf, to jump in an try to smooth the ruffled feathers of his two obstinate and highly opinionated friends.)
DAVID WOOD: David Henderson brought the script of Art to my attention. To be more precise, he leg wrestled me to the floor one day, while screaming “You’ve got to do this play or God will call me home!” I assured him that quoting Oral Roberts would win no Brownie points, but that I’d be more than willing to read the script if he felt that strongly about it. (You’ll promise anything while being trussed up in the infamous Australian Leg Hold.) I subsequently read the script and actually liked it very much. Since they’ve not yet released the musical version of “The Dukes of Hazzard,” I thought Art might be a very nice [2005-06] season opener. Something simple ... not too complicated. (After all, A Christmas Carol is breathing down our necks this time of year.) I asked Mr. Henderson what role he’d like to play. His answer was, quite naturally, “I want to be the one that everybody in the audience loves!” There’s only one role that even remotely comes close to that description — the role of Yvan. So, one character out of a cast of three was set. “You have to be in the play too,” Mr. Henderson continued. “Oh?” I replied with some anticipation, “Which role do you think I should do?” “The one that nobody likes,” was his sweet reply. We now had two-thirds of the cast set — like it or not.
DAVID HENDERSON: Mr. Wood is a tad confused. I did not actually wrestle him to the ground; I simply suggested that I knew where he lived and what kind of car he drove. The real challenge was convincing Mr. Wood that the show would not work as a one-man extravaganza with hand puppets playing the other roles. It breaks my heart when I remember walking in on him as he rehearsed the play with his right hand as Serge and his left hand as Yvan. As a friend, I urged him to come to his senses and use actors ... not tube socks.
WOOD: Our next question was who should play the part of Serge — the one who’s bought a white painting for $200,000? I finally cast Eric Carl in the role because, quite frankly, I grew extremely weary of passing him each day as I arrived for work — sitting in a pitiful fetal position next to the entrance of our theater like a leper pleading for alms. As I attempted to rush past him, trying at the same time to avert my eyes, he would hold out a trembling and cupped hand while whimpering “Please!” Well, what can I say? I’m only human! I offered him the role. After kissing my shoes repeatedly, he sprang to his feet demanding to know — in a voice suddenly alive with robust health and solid determination — where his make-up trailer would be parked in relation to the theater facility.
ERIC CARL: Mr. Wood’s quaint memory of how I was invited to participate in Art will have to go uncorrected as I make it a firm policy to never speak ill of the aged and possibly insane. I must, however, take issue with the accusation of unrealistic demands. I have asked only that my champagne be kept cooled and a light snack of foie gras be served to me promptly as I sweep from the stage following my final bows.
WOOD: Newsweek described Art as sounding “like a marriage of Molière and Woody Allen.” As I see it, that means Eric Carl is Molière and David Henderson is Woody Allen. I have no earthly idea where I fit into the remaining equation.
CARL: Correct me if I’m mistaken; but in the marriage of Molière and Woody Allen, I believe Mr. Wood’s part would be that of Soon Yi.
HENDERSON: More tea, Vicar?
WOOD: David, Eric, and I assembled for the first read-through. All went well, though Mr. Henderson kept referring to our cast as “The Holy Trinity” — which made me a just a tad nervous. He also wanted to know when he could sign his contract ... a ritual which one does not typically go through in community theater. It suddenly occurred to me that Mr. Henderson was expecting to be paid for his participation in the production. I suggested, instead, that he simply keep all of his costumes from the show — to which he readily agreed — not immediately recalling that we would be wearing our own clothes for the production.
HENDERSON: I will admit that I did use the phrase “trilogy” but only after I pleaded with Mr. Wood to stop referring to us as a “threesome.”
WOOD: I referred to it as a threesome only after your incessant pleading to be on top!
HENDERSON: After the read-through, I was overcome with a sense of excitement about the project and I exclaimed, “Where do I sign”. Mr. Wood seems to believe that this indicated a contract ... perhaps, it should have.
CARL: Luckily, I took the precaution of having my clothing stored in Paris. As soon as I am issued my first class ticket, I shall fly there to retrieve my costume.
WOOD: The script is a director’s dream — and an actor’s delightful nightmare. I do not lie. While it’s wonderfully “real” as written and translated, there are lines which are repeated not just once but sometimes three times with only slight modification. If done correctly, the repetition adds an incredible sense of ringing true ... providing the illusion of “the first time” — but, in a technical sense, the script’s construction also presents the alarming possibility of finding yourself caught up in a scene that continues to “loop” forever. You say your first line, and your fellow actor gives you the next line. Both of you continue for a moment or two until either you or your fellow actor suddenly — for reasons passing understanding to anyone who hasn’t been onstage before in a similar situation — inexplicably goes back to the first line ... which starts the segment of lines all over again. If this confusion is repeated more than once, the audience begins to feel an undeniable sense of déjà vu — as the panicked actors become even more frantic in their pitiful efforts to disguise the fact that they are thrashing about in a frenzied attempt to grab hold of anything that floats.
HENDERSON: When Mr. Wood and Mr. Carl’s lips are not moving, I assume that it is my time to speak. If I am wrong and one of them is taking a “dramatic” pause, there will be this wonderful moment during which we talk over each other in a game of “actor chicken.” The first to back down loses.
WOOD: Unless, of course, he has the presence of mind to simply storm off stage as though it was part of the show.
HENDERSON: A bit of business, by the way, that I saw Mr. Carl employ more than once when he performed the role of Sancho Panza [in Man of la Mancha].
WOOD: I thought your portrayal of Dulcinea was breathtaking in that same production.
HENDERSON: I believe Mr. McDowell referred to it as “naughtily provocative.”
WOOD: Particularly so during the rape scene. Was the sheep your idea?
HENDERSON: You’re too kind.
CARL: Struggling for lines can be finessed to the degree that it becomes a charming “personal trademark.” I believe I hold the distinction of being the only actor living who has been given the direction to put a little less in the pauses while playing in Pinter. May I add that a sense of déjà vu is preferable to a sense that one is hearing words issuing from a fellow player that one has never heard before in rehearsal. At such moments, it is best to rearrange the words they have delivered and repeat them back until the confused actor recalls words actually written by the author.
HENDERSON: Much like a Mark Jacobson Toyota commercial.
CARL: Indeed. Cradle a dog in your arms and all is forgiven.
WOOD: The script of Art is 49 pages long. The show runs for 90 minutes without an intermission. (You can do the math in order to determine how many minutes we intend to spend on one page.)
HENDERSON: Unless, of course, Mr. Wood takes one of his famous dramatic pauses at some point in the action.
CARL: Well, he’s old. He needs his rest.
WOOD: During a recent rehearsal, a few curious members of our theater’s board of directors slipped in quietly to observe our “work in progress.” It took only a slight giggle from one of these visitors to immediately send the three of us into “performance” mode. That rather translates into: “Look at me. I’m carrying these two talentless ingrates on my artistic back as well as hauling the coals to New Castle.” Subtlety went out the window as quickly as the suggestion that Pat Robertson might want to think about what he says before he broadcasts it on national television.
HENDERSON: I am....
CARL: I believe my lips are moving now.
HENDERSON: Sorry. I thought they were merely quivering in anticipation of what I was about to say. Please do continue.
CARL: Thank you. As I was about to say — the notion that one may assemble Mr. Wood, Mr. Henderson, and myself for a play and avoid having us shamelessly pander to the audience is as amusing as the notion I am not carrying these two talentless ingrates on my artistic back. You may speak now, David.
HENDERSON: I am NOT carrying these two talentless ingrates on my artistic back. They’re clinging to my pant leg!
WOOD: Te morituri salutamus.
Theatre in the Park presents Art Friday-Saturday, Sept. 16-17, at 8 p.m.; Sunday, Sept. 18, at 3 p.m.; Thursday-Saturday, Sept. 22-24, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday, Sept. 25, at 3 p.m. in The Ira David Wood Pullen Park Theatre, 107 Pullen Rd., Raleigh, North Carolina. $18 ($12 students and seniors 55+). 919/831-6058. Note 1: There will be an opening-night reception after the Sept. 16th performance, and a casual exhibition of modern art by local artists during the production. Note 2: There will be audio description at the Sept. 22nd performance. Theatre in the Park: http://www.theatreinthepark.com/2005-06_productions/art/art.htm [inactive 11/09]. Internet Broadway Database: http://www.ibdb.com/production.asp?ID=4847.