On Theater: 'Art' for laughs' sake

Art, much like beauty, often is in the eye of the beholder. One man's masterpiece might easily be another man's rubbish. It's not, after all, like sports where there are clear-cut winners and losers.

Yasmina Reza's caustic comedy "Art," however, is a slam-dunk winner. First unveiled at South Coast Repertory several seasons ago, it's now on view at the Newport Theatre Arts Center where even a directorial switch in mid-stream hasn't compromised its comedic impact.

When original director Michael Ross became seriously ill midway through rehearsals, NTAC called on another A-list director, Gigi Fusco Meese, to bring the show home in grand style. Its three-man cast has responded splendidly.

"Art" plays out its brief, intermissionless, run in three fellows' apartments where scenes are shifted via lighting and imagination. The setting, by Andrew Otero, is spare but effective as each actor plays out his case in spotlight between sequences of interaction with the others.

The crux of the comedy is an all-white painting that wealthy Serge (Cort Huckabone) has bought for a mind-blowing price of $200,000, which stuns his best friend, Marc (Thom Gilbert), who favors brutal honesty over polite admiration.

When a third comrade, Yvan (David Colley) becomes involved in the situation, the plot begins to bubble, and soon the situation comes to blows. Well, one blow, actually, and that one a misfire.

Both Huckabone and Colley play out their characters as exposed nerve endings, irate at the lack of understanding and compassion on the part of the more self-possessed Gilbert, who, ironically, is the one who resorts to fisticuffs.

The paintless painting merely is what Alfred Hitchcock would call the McGuffin, something that ignites the play's characters. The idea of expending a fortune for its blank picture of nothingness is the incendiary ingredient that threatens to destroy longtime friendships.

Gilbert excels at his pragmatic, direct characterization which functions as a sort of torch to Huckabone's excitable sensibilities. One could naturally line up on Gilbert's realistic side of the argument, but one also might support Huckabone's fervent but gullible idealism.

The introduction of Colley, who attempts to mollify both men, moves the conflict to a whole new level and treads the fragile boundary of farce. His character has a mountain of problems concerning his impending marriage, and he disgorges them in a breathless and lengthy monologue calculated to elicit applause.

The combined talents of two of local theater's most capable directors mesh beautifully in this animated exercise in both seriousness and silliness. The mind and the funny bone are both well served at NTAC.

TOM TITUS reviews local theater for the Daily Pilot.

If You Go

What: "Art"

Where: Newport Theatre Arts Center, 2501 Cliff Drive, Newport Beach

When: 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays until Oct. 21

Cost: $15 to $20

Information: (949) 631-0288 or http://www.ntaconline.com

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