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A not-so-blank canvas 

& & by Michael Bowen & &





People refer to this serious comedy as the play about the white painting, but it's really about friendship.


Especially the world of conventional, heterosexual male friendship, in which everything's often a competition, third parties are manipulated into taking sides between rivals, latter-day Machiavellis are scrambling up the pecking order, and any attack on my possessions or my beliefs -- or my wife -- constitutes an attack upon me. Playwright Yasmina Reza welcomes you to a dramatic world where men spout beliefs they don't really feel in order to achieve a supremacy they don't really want.


After all, when a man loathes what his friend loves -- that all-white canvas again --what is he to do? Ultimately, "Art" suggests that sometimes we should just accept our friends' opinions, even if -- especially if -- those beliefs violate our own private criteria for good taste. After all, what matters more -- opinions about a painting or the strength of our friendships?


In the current Interplayers production of Reza's "Art", director Joan Welch and her trio of actors convey most of the forcefulness of such debates. As Marc, the man who won't be taken in by the pretensions of modern abstraction, Peter Murray has bulldog ferocity. We get the intensity of his disdain for his friend Serge's acquiring of this all-white portrait of pomposity. We get Marc's intolerance for any show of independence by his friends. We see his jealousy of the painting -- his fear that it has come between him and Serge -- even as he denies that he is jealous.


But what we miss in Murray's portrayal is the man's love of tradition, his respect for previous centuries of artists. Director Joan Welch has chosen to dress Marc in the evening's trendiest clothes, as if to suggest that his disdain for everything modern is merely an affectation. This version of Marc wants to be au courant as much as the next guy.


And the next guy is Serge, the owner of the blank canvas. Marc may represent the potential victory of ego over friendship, but Serge is just as guilty of arrogance. Serge pretends to belong to the haut monde so that he can distance himself from his friends and declare his superiority. Indeed, if the play seems imbalanced, with Marc too much the villain as a monster of possessiveness and egotism, that may be Reza's attempt to counterbalance the fatuity of Serge's newfound status as a self-declared connoisseur. In other words, Serge's arrogance, because it threatens a long-standing friendship, is serious stuff.


And filling this serious role is Michael Weaver, Interplayers' associate "Art"istic director and accomplished comic actor of many years' standing. Having gotten applause for comic shenanigans in various over-the-top roles in past years, Weaver has settled too comfortably into some habits. The role of Serge gives him a chance to act with more seriousness and less buffoonery. And yet the comic mannerisms intrude too often. At one point, when Marc points out Serge's ostentatious reverence for "the "Art"ist," Weaver, his character genuinely angry and almost obsessive on the point, undermines the anger by indulging in some of his by now too-familiar comic mannerisms (frenzied hand waving, high-pitched squeals, derisive scowls with upturned chin). On the other hand, Weaver's anger whenever his character senses he's being condescended to was quite convincing. He is very good in the two scenes where he shows off his new acquisition to his friends. He crosses his arms in defensiveness, scowls in appraisal, urges them on like a parent teaching a kid how to ride a bike.


The character most in need of parenting is Yvan, caught in the middle of the two quarreling stalwarts and essayed here by Steven L. Barron. Yvan is the ineffectual peacemaker, an "amoeba" who has never had a sincere or original opinion on anything. He finds the emotional revelation of arguments exhausting and comforts himself with food. The centerpiece of the role is an extended complaint about his in-laws, a seven-minute comic rant that, while not quite as hilarious as it might have been, nonetheless exemplifies the kind of venting genuine friends need to put up with. More than with his Mortimer Brewster in Arsenic and Old Lace earlier in season, Barron hones his comic character into contemporary relevance. His mid-play monologue was a showstopper.


Welch directs masterfully, highlighting the play's oppositions. For example, while Serge owns the painting, and Marc owns the rigidity of his convictions, Yvan lays claim to something, too -- his psychiatrist. During a rare moment of reconciliation, she mines comedy from the simple device of lining up her three actors, all slumped on a couch.


A few of the play's debates seemed unduly protracted. Some of that impression results from listening to the same three men dissect the minutiae of their lives for an hour and a half. But Reza alternates the comedy and the philosophical bits, so that the savage attacks of friend on friend are moderated. Besides, there's something inherently funny about a white canvas perched conspicuously under track lighting.


The set by Jason Laws, all understated modern elegance, is beautifully done. His lighting nicely underscores the action with brightness and blackouts -- never more strikingly than in the play's final image, spotlighting the white painting.


That image leaves us to contemplate how we would prefer our friends to be a collective tabula rasa. Like Serge and Marc in the play, we project onto our friends the traits we insist they should have. These are the traits, we like to think, that we ourselves have placed there, as if drawing them on a white canvas that really belongs to someone else.

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