Art that divides
The intimate and psychologically loaded play, Art, presented by Alliance Repertory Theatre, is a difficult play tackling subjects of friendship, happiness and art—modern art, to be specific. This drama focuses on the interaction of three “best” friends (Sarah, Marc and Yvon) who find themselves at a crisis point in their friendships, trying to untangle their deep fondness for each other from their opposing opinions about a piece of art. They examine and attack each others’ strengths and weaknesses.
The play is set in Paris; the characters are apparently from England, though Sarah, (Jacqueline Fisher) is the only one to maintain a strong English accent. Sarah has recently spent the bulk of her money, 200,000 francs, on a single white-on-white painting. The conundrum begins when she invites Marc (Kenneth Ostrom) over to view her new prize, and he is appalled, calling it “shit.” The arrogant Marc immediately finds himself torn between his adoration of Sarah and his complete dislike of the work; he wonders how or if he can be friends with someone who would dedicate so much of her limited wealth to such an object.
Peacemaker Yvon (Marrio Alonzo Williams) enters the fray, attempting to placate the controversy by hovering over both sides of the issue but only managing to render himself so opinion-less that Marc later refers to him as a “flabby amoeba.” The ensuing interaction between the three highlights the complexity of things that appear simple. The depth, or lack thereof, of a white painting serves as the analogy for the intricacies and uncertainties that lie beneath friendships that feel so certain.
But how much friendship is there really when three people strike at each other with the barbs these three do? Most of the time, these characters are so mired in their frustrations about one another, they become more focused on proving a point, pushing the issues, and winning the war of wills than finding any sort of common ground. It’s as if we’ve wandered into a bad relationship on the verge of a breakup.
Though there are a few moments of tenderness toward the end—Marc “sees” that the painting “represents a man who moves across a space and disappears"—the efforts don’t feel as powerful as the earlier insults. If these interactions are supposed to speak for something larger (seeing and appreciating the complex in the simple, for example), the play only works if these are relationships that resonate with the audience; we need to be compelled to care.
Portraying such conflict is not an easy task, and the performances presented by Fisher, Ostrom and Williams don’t go far enough in illustrating the difficulty of the situation. Plenty of comic relief is written into the script by Yasmina Reza, but in Alliance Rep’s performance of Art, there is little in the way of laughs. Laughter would have been very welcome given the seriousness and heaviness of the subject matter, and perhaps would have helped the audience feel that there was some warmth between the friends.
Many of the lines delivered by Williams and Ostrom didn’t flow—they got tripped up or misspoken. It was distracting enough to take away from the quality of the performance as a whole. When you only have three characters, everyone needs to be on at all times. In all, Art may leave you with much to ponder, but perhaps not the way good art does.