ART: A Matter of Perspective

l. to r. Robert Pemberton as Marc and Robert Walsh as Serge in 'ART'. Photo by Andrew Brilliant/ Brilliant Pictures.

Art by Yasmina Reza, New Repertory TheatreArsenal Center for the Arts, 1/15/12-2/5/12,

Reviewed by Becca Kidwell

(Watertown, MA) Art is…well, about art–the styles, philosophies, the impact on the individual.  When a person creates a work of art, using quality tools always helps in creating a quality piece (although that’s not to say that there aren’t some interesting works of art made from found objects).  Antonio Ocampo-Guzman starts with some of the finest:  a brilliant script and a trio of Boston talent.  Without any deeper analysis, those are two reasons to see the show.  The problem with art, as the play postulates, is that art is subjective and will not necessarily be seen the same through the same lens by each person.

Art revolves around a painting that is white with white lines that Serge (Robert Walsh) bought for 200,000 francs (this play was written before the euro).  Serge delights in new and innovative ideas that propels him to feel like an aesthete of art and thought.  Marc (Robert Pemberton) is classical; he believes there is a structure to be followed in art, life, and friendship that should be followed at all costs.  Yvan is the balance and highlight between the two friends.  He blends and provides harmony to the dissonance of Marc and Serge.

Yasmina Reza would probably be happy with this production because she writes about tragic situations and believes they should be taken “seriously.”  New Rep’s production provides a pensive, solemn scene with a few chuckles, but no sustained guffaws, with peace and reflection.  Perhaps this is what she intended, and perhaps this is what she envisions her play to look like.  However, the original productions of Art and God of Carnage in the United Kingdom and United States were not to her liking–yet they were wildly successful.

Reza was disappointed at the UK and US productions of Art and God of Carnage because the plays were turned into hilarious comedies, winning both Olivier and Tony Awards.  The comedy, however, came out of the tragedy.  Sometimes, to release tension, we laugh.  People have been known to laugh at funerals when they are uncomfortable; should it be that far a leap for people to laugh at petty squabbles?

Doug Lockwood, Robert Pemberton, and Robert Walsh are magnetic and hold the audiences’ attention.   Doug Lockwood plays Yvan, the middle class stationer who is trying to deal with the stress of wedding preparations.  Lockwood’s demeanor as Yvan is sweet and pathetic and makes any rational person ask why he would be friends with Serge and Marc.  His innocence reflects the character’s “base” nature as he adjusts depending upon location and company.

As Marc, Robert Pemberton, is controlling and self-important; in a contrasting, but similar fashion Robert Walsh is equally controlling and self-important.  Many of their best moments happen during their soliloquies when they are commenting and/or reacting to the conflict that is transpiring.  All of the actors do a superb job of varying the levels of anger.  While some actors believe that angry means yelling all the time, these men portray all of the complexities and subtleties of animosity.  The three gentlemen are pleasant and calm…pleasant and calm…

Herein lies the problem.  The characters are so pleasant and so calm that while they may argue, they seem like after a few beers or maybe a few days at most, they’ll forgive and forget and go back to their defined, yet undefined existence as a group.  But the words speak differently.  This play teeters upon life and death, the individual versus the group, the construction and deconstruction of values.  This production feels like Art on a cruise ship.  While the friends are sparring, the action seems lackadaisical  and does not set up many moments of tension, even when they are specifically written into the script.

The  lack of physical connection–or even close proximity mutes the tension;  each person is placed within their own “comfort zone” leaving little room for explosion–particularly in the final act of the play.  Furthermore,  the chair and couch on the set create a vacuum.  While directors and actors need physical points of reference, the chair and the couch devour the action.  At crisis moments, the actors get stuck in the seats and reduce a cut to a scratch.  One example of this is when Yvan enters after a trying bout with his relatives over the wedding plans; his monologue equals the monologue of Lucky in Waiting for Godot.  Ocampo-Guzman makes a strange choice here.  After a short period of time, Yvan sits in the middle of the monologue.  This man, who seems like he would have shot his brains out if he had spent one more moment talking to his parents or fiance releases most of his neurotic energy–into the couch.  While Doug Lockwood’s pathos is fresh and funny, it becomes muffled by the cushions that drag him down.

One of the other problems is the substantial amount of space between the actors at moments of explosion.  This is particularly true when Serge and Marc’s violent words turn to violent actions; the actors have to force a rushed assault upon Yvan.  At that moment, the actors really needed to have a “kiss/punch” formation (when a couple or group of actors that they will either be drawn into a kiss or thrown out by a punch).  The action would seem less like a direction and more like an outpouring of natural anger in the moment if the actors had been closer to each other.

A small comment on costume design:  Serge is supposed to be the definition of modern and fashionable; Stacey and Clinton from What Not To Wear, would never consider a person who wears a sweatshirt to be stylish.  While some poseurs do dress in this relaxed manner, Serge considers himself a pinnacle of class and the sweatshirt devalues that image that he has created.

Reza’s words still penetrate the air even in this more relaxed atmosphere.  Perhaps, it is all a matter of perspective.  I like my pathos with a little more neurosis, you may like yours with a cigarette and a chaise lounge, or you may simply be happy to be hanging out with your friends.  Whether you’re a Serge, Marc, or Yvan, New Repertory Theatre’s production of Art will leave you with hours of contemplation.


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