From a quick synopsis of the plot, you might get the impression that "Art" the intelligent and often very funny show currently running at TheatreVirginia explores the question: "What is art?" However, the mystery that playwright Yasmina Reza seems to want to examine with her Tony-award winning and internationally acclaimed play is: "What binds one friend to another?" Much comic banter is generated in the asking of this question, but the play ultimately fails to provide much insight toward an answer. So while you'll have some fun along the way, at the end of this 90-minute, intermission-free journey, you may not be sure exactly where you've arrived. The characters whose bonds of friendship are tested in this comedy are three Parisians named Serge, Marc and Yvan. Serge (Count Stovall) is a dermatologist who instigates the action of the play by buying a large painting with white smears and lines on a white background for 200,000 francs (nearly $30,000). His snobbish friend Marc (Michael Goodwin) feels personally affronted by the purchase and demeans Serge's love for the painting. Serge decries Marc's lack of understanding of modern art and a conflict soon escalates. Their mutual friend Yvan (Mick Weber) steps in to try to moderate, only to suffer withering abuse from both sides. The witty repartee Reza has constructed for these characters strains for sophistication and often succeeds. But it also eventually devolves into ham-fisted mutterings of "You are insane!" and a slapsticky choking battle. George Black's direction, which seems to have encouraged the yelling of lines that could be just as effectively delivered sotto voce, does not help. Even so, two scenes in this production are absolute gems (already well-polished in the preview performance I saw): Yvan's rambling recounting of a battle with his fiancée and Serge's brutal assessment of the woman in Marc's life. While other snatches of dialogue seem reminiscent of Woody Allen or Neil Simon, these two scenes highlight Reza's original and acerbic voice. As Marc, Goodwin is able to hint at insecurity and anxiety without sacrificing any of his character's maddening smugness. You have to get used to the over-gesticulation that Weber infuses his nervous Yvan with, but after you do, you'll be charmed by his flustered ineffectualness. Only Stovall falls short of conveying depth to his character; even with the supremely magnanimous gesture Serge offers at the play's climax, we have to be told of its significance rather than getting it from Stovall's performance. Of the designers for the production, scenic designer David Crank acquits himself most eloquently with his raked stage dominated by a towering mantelpiece. Crank also produced the white-on-white painting at the show's core and was able to fill it with suggestion while keeping it absolutely abstract. Lynne Hartman's lighting design lacks much contrast or color, and Sue Griffin's costumes are a bit perfunctory, as exemplified by Yvan's ill-fitting shirt. But however you dress it up, you can't disguise the essential deficit of "Art." While the characters seemed to learn important lessons about the value and quality of friendship, I somehow missed the moral. My laughter, though considerable, was ultimately hollow.
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