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Theatre review: 'Art' thrives on condescension

February 04, 2012|By Lynne Heffley

It’s all about a certain white-on-white painting. Or is it?

The big white canvas at the center of “Art,” the Tony Award-winning play by Yasmina Reza (“God of Carnage”), serves as both catalyst and focal point for a frothy exploration of intellectual and anti-intellectual pretentions and a trio of male friendships rooted in unspoken covenants of need and acceptance.

And, for emotional authenticity and sheer fun, a new production of “Art” at the Pasadena Playhouse, directed with finesse by David Lee and featuring a sterling cast — Emmy winner Bradley Whitford (Josh Lyman on “The West Wing”) as Marc, Broadway veterans Roger Bart (“The Producers” and “Young Frankenstein”) and Oscar nominee Michael O’Keefe (“The Great Santini”) as Yvan and Serge, respectively — would be hard to beat.

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When dermatologist Serge proudly shows his longtime buddy, Marc the engineer, his new acquisition — a white painting with a hefty price tag — Marc reacts first with derisive laughter, then escalating anger. No, he can’t see subtle grays and yellows in the painting, and he won’t believe that Serge can see them, either.

Marc is convinced that Serge has been ripped off by the gallery crowd that he’s been hobnobbing with of late, and what’s worse, his friend has adopted that crowd’s false and facile superiority.

Serge accuses Marc of smugness and inflexibility. Caught in the middle is jokester Yvan, with a dead-end job, an impending wedding, weekly psychiatric sessions and an eager-to-please penchant for clowning fueled by existential despair. Yvan’s attempts to defuse the situation serve only to make him the target of his friends’ joint condescension and vitriol.

Abstract observations turn personal. Accusations of pretentiousness and condescension fly. Significant others are attacked in absentia. Exploding willy-nilly, the shifting attacks draw on years of small irritations and buried resentments.

As the friendship careens toward destruction, Bart works Yvan’s ingratiating grin and hint of pathos to maximum effect. His hilariously exhaustive rundown of a clash over wedding invitations involving Yvan’s parents, future in-laws and demanding fiancée is nothing short of a tour-de-force.

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