The man show
Is Peggy Shannon sending us a message about life and love? The January and February picks by the Sacramento Theatre Company’s artistic director were female-written plays, with all-female casts, in which husbands, most of them deceased, were discussed in absentia almost as though they were spare parts.
Now, we’ve got Art, a 9-year-old chamber play set in France, that notably progressive and simultaneously conservative country, with three male roles and plenty of dismissive remarks about women offstage. Two alpha males lock horns again and again, while their less-assertive buddy—the one you might actually enjoy meeting at a party—gets gored from both sides. The domineering opponents are charismatic, headstrong, middle-aged pricks who periodically sound like strutting, foul-mouthed junior high bullies. The language may offend cultural conservatives and those attached to past standards of politeness.
Let it be noted that this play about men behaving badly was written by a woman, Yasmina Reza. And, ostensibly, these alpha types are jousting over their opinions regarding a painting—a 4-by-5-foot, white-on-white canvas purchased for a scandalously large sum. One guy sees it as a modernist breakthrough (and a good investment). The other, a more classically minded guy, regards it as monochrome junk.
Art has been in town once before, with a week-long run in the mammoth Community Center Theatre under the Broadway Series banner, with Judd Hirsh. That run had problems. Art is an inherently intimate play, set in a living room. Something was lost when it was staged in a barn that seats more than 2,000.
The play works much better in the Sacramento Theatre Company’s 300-seat McClatchy Mainstage. As compared with Hirsh’s straightforward, curmudgeonly portrayal of the skeptical Marc, black actor Hassan El-Amin does his own version of a stuck-up, slow-ignition burn. Matt Miller, now a favorite actor with this company and deservedly so, does the floundering Yvan—the play’s best part—with a winning mix of vulnerability while turning the other cheek. Greg Alexander is Serge, a doctor and wannabe art collector; Alexander smacks many punch lines toward the outfield fences, but he could give a somewhat better view into his character’s inner world.
At 75 minutes, this play is longer than most one-acts but shorter than most full-length plays. With just three characters, director Anthony DeFonte weaves his spell successfully most of the way through, using a mix of dialogue and solo-spotlight monologue. Some of the chat, about an hour in, turns pretentious (also the case in the previous Broadway Series version). EJ Reinagel contributes a striking set design, with jagged shapes on the sides and smooth furniture in the middle.