Theatre review: 'Art' thrives on condescension

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.

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.

O’Keefe’s Serge, whose anger is by turns repressed and waspish, clearly relishes his acquired refinement, from his entrance in conspicuous, art-protecting white gloves to his ceremonial presentation of French press coffee and self-conscious display of essays by Seneca.

Meanwhile, Whitford depicts Marc’s agitation as a state of physical torment, with spasmodic kicks of his legs, fidgety hands, fists plunging into his trouser pockets. (Kate Bergh’s street-wear costumes are serviceably reflective of each character.) When Whitford sits on the set’s low-slung leather couch, he’s like a coiled spring about to snap.

The well-matched actors nail the play’s edgy repartee, translated from French by Christopher Hampton, with the back-and-forth thwack of champion tennis players. Timing is essential, and under Lee’s steady hand, the actors don’t miss a beat.

Yet despite comedy that at times borders on slapstick, when Whitford delivers Marc’s thoughtful coda, the production has managed to evoke some sense of the loneliness and need for validation in these men that would make even a battered friendship worth saving.

Tom Buderwitz’s cool, monochromatic living room set design serves as three apartments with just one change: a switch of paintings on the wall. It is beautifully lit, as it needs to be, by Jared A. Sayeg, while Philip G. Allen offers the clarity of sound vital to Reza’s dialogue-rich play.

LYNNE HEFFLEY writes regularly on theater and the arts for Marquee.


“Art,” the Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena. 8 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, 4 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday. Ends Feb. 19. $29-$59. Premium seating, $100. $15 rush tickets available. Running time: 90 minutes. (626) 356-7529,

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