Written By Yazmina Reza
Translated by Christopher Hampton
Directed by James Napoleon Stone
featuring Kevin Fanshaw, Elohim Peña, and Lucas James Vonesek)
Presented by Theatre Coup d’État
at The Club Room at Muse Events Center till April 4
Why are your friends your friends?
What is it about the people that you surround yourself with? And why these people in particular? Is it because you all think somewhat alike? Or do they play pre-assigned “roles” in your life, with set expectations?
Now, what happens when those friends change on you in ways that you’re not prepared to deal with?
This is the big question that is asked by ‘Art’, Yasmina Reza’s Tony and Olivier-winning play getting a sharp production courtesy of Theatre Coup d’État. While there are a few quibbles to be had, director James Napoleon Stone and his cast have created an intimate, bracing production that is a celebration and brutally honest examination about friendship in general and friendship among men in particular.
Set it the modern day, the play is focused on Marc (Lucas James Vonesek), Serge (Elohim Peña) and Yvan (Kevin Fanshaw); three old friends of long standing. One day Serge spends $200,000 on a modern white on white painting that speaks to him, to Marc’s extreme consternation, which causes the two friends to disagree. Yvan gets sucked in trying to keep the peace while dealing with his own troubles surrounding his impending wedding. Lines are drawn, petty resentments come bubbling up, and a decades-long friendship uncomfortably and hilariously implodes.
Reza’s comedy (as translated by the acclaimed British playwright Christopher Hampton) is a deceptively simple affair. The set, without actually changing anything, switches from each man’s apartment, with the only differentiation coming from the infamous Antrios painting. The sparseness of the physical production actually plays into Theatre Coup d’État’s house aesthetic of slightly austere productions, and the decision to use the tiny Club Room at Muse as the setting (and re-arranging the room to basically perform the play in a tiny three-quarter thrust style) is brilliant. Mr. Stone’s company has always worked on narrowing the gap between actor and audience, and the close proximity enhances the squirm-inducing uncomfort as we watch these three friends self-destruct mere inches from us.
With a script so tightly constructed and a staging so intimate, you need actors that can deliver and once again (as he proved with his productions of One Flea Spare and The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)) Mr. Stone has assembled a fantastic cast in Mssrs. Fanshaw, Peña, and Vonesek. Each actor fills and shades his role beautifully; be it Mr. Vonesek’s pompous indignation as Marc, Mr. Peña’s gleefully rebellious Serge, or Mr. Fanshaw’s self-absorbed cowardice as Yvan. Even better (and this is where Mr. Stone’s direction really shines), the ensemble work between the three men is superb; their natural camaraderie and simpatico approach to the material fills in the blanks on the characters’ fifteen-year friendship, and the end result is that it enhances the intimacy of the piece and pushes the comedically discomforting parts of the play to their logical conclusion.
There were a few quibbles I had. I’m not sure which version of the script the company was working from as a few of the French references didn’t make sense or not changed out correctly (as they were in the British and American versions of the script). Also, I was surprised that though they kept the French pronunciation of Yvan’s name (subsequently it’s been changed to or pronounced as Ivan) but didn’t for Serge (think Gainsbourg instead of Eisenstein). However, these are minor compared to the bigger issue that I had only upon reflection after seeing the performance, and it took researching for this review to crystallize it for me. Ms. Reza’s work (such as this, Life x3, and God of Carnage) and especially as translated by Mr. Hampton usually deals with the concerns of people of a certain age, and that age is decidedly middle age. As brilliant as this production is, it feels ever so slightly off given the youth of the three actors, and the result is that what should feel like a friendship that has been around for decades is thus only a decade, and what should feel like a lifetime’s worth of resentments spewing forth in the climactic second half of the play is slightly defanged as the sheer history that comes with age simply isn’t there. (To put this in context, when the play debuted in London in 1996, the great Albert Finney was the first Marc. When it premiered on Broadway two years later, the original trio was Alan Alda, Victor Garber, and Alfred Molina; who were subsequently replaced by Judd Hirsch, Joe Morton, and George Wendt, and then by Buck Henry, George Segal, and Wayne Knight.) This does not derail the play – Mr. Stone and his company of actors are too smart and too talented for that! – but it does leave a slightly discordant note that sticks in your ear after the fact.
Like the Antrios painting that serves as the McGuffin that drives it, ‘Art’ is a deceptively simple play. It’s not just a play about three men squabbling over a painting; it’s a black comedy of manners on what happens when the petty annoyances of your friends transform into issues worth fighting over. And in their intense, intimate staging, Theatre Coup d’État has pushed the brutal beauty (and beautiful brutality) of the piece forward, turning ‘Art’ into a work of art.
Theatre Coup d’État’s production of ‘Art’ continues through April 20, with performances Fridays – Mondays at 7:30pm at the Club Room at Muse Event Center, located at 107 3rd Ave N in Minneapolis. Tickets are $20 and can be purchased HERE.
Photo Credit: Theatre Coup d’État