Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, September 2002

Although I moved away from my hometown of New York City in 1980, I still faithfully watch the Tony Awards every June, even though the names of the nominees mean little to me these days. And I will never forget the sound that the audience made at the 1998 Tonys when ART was announced as the Best Play of that year, beating out the industry favorite The Beauty Queen of Leenane by Martin McDonagh. The camera was not on the audience but it sounded as if a riot had erupted. The roar that I heard was not one of triumph, but one of righteous indignation. Many people in that crowd obviously felt that ART did not deserve the award.

With its Tony win and the fact that it is a small scale and brief play that can be easily and inexpensively produced, ART has made the rounds of regional theatres in the intervening four years, and yet I had managed not to see it until now. I went to the Ghent Playhouse curious to see what I had been missing.

ART is a play originally written in French by Yasmina Reza. All five of Reza’s plays have been extremely well received in Europe, winning many prestigious awards. The English version of ART was translated by Christopher Hampton, a well-known playwright in his own right, who has produced acclaimed translations of classics such as Uncle Vanya, Hedda Gabler, A Doll’s House and Moliere’s Don Juan. But even with such fine credentials and many awards in the English speaking theatre, I never quite trust a translation. You are hearing the author’s words filtered not only through the looking glass of language, but through the subjective mind of another writer. Hampton’s work seems to be a very literal translation in the sense that it still sounds foreign, sort of wedged awkwardly into English by an erudite ESL student.

The play centers on what happens to the 15-year friendship of three Parisian men – Serge, Marc, and Ivan – when Serge pays an exorbitant sum for an all-white painting. Marc is outraged at Serge’s purchase. Ivan, caught up in the stresses of planning his first marriage at the age of 40 and embarking on a new and uninspiring career as a stationery salesman, is less concerned about it.

Maybe it was the translation, but I felt I was missing some vital information about the basis of Marc and Serge’s relationship. We are told that Marc is an aeronautic engineer and Serge is a dermatologist. Serge is divorced and a non-custodial father. Marc has fairly recently embarked on a live-in relationship with a new age-y woman named Paula. Serge doesn’t approve of the woman Marc loves and Marc doesn’t approve of the painting Serge loves. And this is important because…?? Serge doesn’t have to live with Paula and Marc doesn’t have to live with the painting. If they go out for a meal or to see a movie together neither Paula nor the painting needs to go along. And yet these two men both feel the need to try to force the other to conform to their wishes. If they’re not having fun together, why don’t they all just go home? Maybe French men really behave like this and get this wrapped up in art and I am just too much of a Yank to understand.

I am not quite sure what Ivan is doing on the stage, but he proves the most identifiable and interesting character in the play. Perhaps this is because Tom Detwiler is the most able actor on the stage, or perhaps the character is really better written, but he is certainly the most fun to watch and listen to. Detwiler’s delivery of Ivan’s frantic monologue on the nightmares of family politics involved in planning a wedding was the funniest moment in the play.

I loved Paul Murphy as the demented Sam Byck in Assassins last May, and I hardly recognized him in this wooden performance as Serge. Again, maybe it is the translation, or maybe Bernardine Handler stifled all of Murphy’s energy, but I could not discern a flicker of the passion Serge is supposed to possess for this painting.

As for Mike Sanders as Marc, never send a Brit to do a Frenchman’s work. Sanders is a handsome and accomplished actor, but he is British and the whole world knows how the narrow English Channel separates what might as well be two different species of homo sapiens. No self-respecting Englishman would WANT, let alone be able, to convincingly portray a Frenchman, and so it is no wonder Sanders completely misses the boat.

Reza claims that the play is not about art, but her title says otherwise. ART is a very arty play in which the price and prestige of globs of paint on a canvas absorb an inordinate amount of people’s energy – energy that would much better be spent on the friendships the play is purportedly about. I don’t blame that Tony audience in 1998. There must be better plays than ART for us all to spend our time producing and watching.

ART, performed by the Columbia Civic Players, runs October 4 & 5 at 8 p.m., and October 6 at 2 p.m. at the Ghent Playhouse, on Town Hall Road just off of Rt. 66 in Ghent, NY. Tickets are $15 for evening performances and $14 for matinees. The show runs just under 90 minutes without an intermission. The show would be boring and confusing for young children. The very few four-letter words scattered through the script are mild by today’s standards. For tickets and information call the box office at 518-392-6264.

copyright Gail M. Burns, 2002

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