Art – This Is Not a Play
A REVIEW BY THE BAD ORACLE
In the year 1917, Marcel Duchamp submitted a work of art to an exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists in New York. It was, well, a toilet. A urinal, to be precise. It wasn’t built by him, it wasn’t signed by him, (well, it was, but the name on it read “R. Mutt”). Duchamp didn’t create the urinal. He bought it from J. L. Mott Ironworks, turned it upside down and called it art. In 1999, someone paid $1.7 MILLION dollars for a REPLICA of it. And, in 2004, Fountain was voted the most influential artwork of the 20th century by the kind of people who know. Yuuuup. Yasmina Reza’s Art both understands perfectly well why someone would spend that many zeros on an art toilet and, at the same time, is completely baffled. In pure Reza style (I just saw another one of her plays, God of Carnage, over at Spotlighters), we have here people who would call themselves middle-class but are, of course, v. v. upper-class. One of these people, Serge (Steven Shriner), has just purchased a painting for 200,000 francs. Serge has two besties, Marc (Mark Scharf) and Yvan (Eric C. Stein), to whom he is eager to show off his brand new white (but is it) square. Marc is perplexed and angered by Serge’s painting. See, the issue for Marc is not whether Serge can afford it (he’s a dermatologist, so). The issue is that he bought it. He. bought. it. Yvan is a bundle of nerves on the brink of his, perhaps, ill-fated wedding day. He, rather honestly, doesn’t immensely care about Serge’s art acquisitions but is invested in the fifteen-year friendship between the men, which, it soon becomes clear, is his only respite from the rest of his life. Marc can’t drop it, Serge bristles. The barbs between them are learned, anticipated, both cringe right before them like William Tell’s son. They talk, they talk. Reza is a genius with language, her phrasing is immaculate: “nostalgia merchants”, “chaotic originality”. It’s so amusingly French, too. One of the main gripes Serge has with Marc’s wife is the way she waves away cigarette smoke. The whole concept, I suspect, is funny to Americans. I mean, most of us, if we’re being honest, are amused that anyone buys any type of art other than Bob Marley posters and beer lights. I’m straying, I’m sorry. The acting sucked me in straight away. Shriner’s Serge is a portrait of needy, vulnerable, desperate, hilarious. We know immediately that the “Antrios” is a stand in for Serge’s ego, or maybe even his Id. Insult my things, insult me. The genius in Shriner is always his attention to detail. As an actor, he conveys fucking worlds through the tiniest of gestures, the smallest inflections – listen to how he pronounces the word “shit”. Or how he pauses right before he answers “Yes” when asked about his “monastic” lifestyle. Perfection in a role that could so easily go showboating right over the horizon. I liked Eric Stein in this spring’s The Foreigner, also at Vagabond, and here he hits again. His Yvan is one of those Woody Allanish types who only feel really comfortable when they’re panicking. He nails an absolute jackrabbit of a monologue where Yvan enacts about a hundred conversations between his extended family (and, I might add, received a well-deserved hand for it). I was slower to get Mark Scharf’s Marc, but then a light bulb went off and I twigged (even a broken clock is right twice a day, y’all). Where I at first found him a little cold – it felt like he just wasn’t giving as much as the other two – I realized that his reluctance to fully respond in the first half of the play absolutely informs the second half. It ran clear to me that we were literally seeing the dynamics fifteen years in the making: Serge yearns, Marc refuses. Serge wants, Marc won’t give. Scharf plays Marc exactly like a man who knows the exact price of his friendship and that price happens to be exactly 200,000 francs. Howard Berkowitz orchestrates all this delicately. He surety as a director means he doesn’t have to push and he doesn’t give a shit if we don’t get it right away. So what?, he shrugs. You’ll see. He paces it solidly, if clippily. Was the set design (by Maurice “Moe” Cohen), with all those blank ovals and the large, frame encased proscenium, a little obvious? Yes. Was that a problem? Nope. The lighting, however (by Charlie Danforth III) was a little…ah…aggressive with the colored gels. There were times that it looked like a birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese or the Enchantment Under the Sea dance.
BOTTOM LINE: Art is a carefully constructed gamble. It’s a play that encourages the audience to ponder the worth of investing in art fifteen minutes after we’ve all done just that out in the lobby. Luckily, the production was so good that the money was obvs worth it. The show was a steal at $15. It would have been at $40, $50, $100 (or hell, even 200,000 francs) a ticket. Acting sharp as a kitten’s claws, direction smooth as a new jar of peanut butter. I dig, man.
Running at Vagabond Players until September 28th.
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