In the middle of a 1994 preview performance in London of the play Art, a spectator suddenly shouted, "Modern art is a not a farcical matter!" On another evening a man stood up and yelled, "What are you people laughing at? Isn't there anybody here who knows what a work of art is?" which a prompted an abusive back-and-forth in the audience, forcing the actors to stop the play for a full minute.
Parisian actress-turned-playwright Yasmina Reza was inspired to write this controversial play, which opens on Broadway this month, after a friend bought an all-white a painting for the hefty sum of 200,000 francs (about $33,000). Art ran for 18 months in France and won two Molière awards (the French Tony); Sean Connery acquired the producing rights, Les Liaisons Dangereuses translator, playwright Christopher Hampton, came aboard, and now Art is being performed throughout the world in more than 15 languages.
Is the play a tirade against abstract modernism? Or a deeper discussion about male friendship? "At the risk of sounding like a moderate," answers Alfred Molina (last seen as the coked-up drug dealer in Boogie Nights), "I think it's a bit of both." This is a fitting response from the actor who plays Yvan, the acquiescent character caught in the cross fire between Serge (Victor Garber, the tortured ship designer from the film Titanic), a budding collector who purchases a very expensive all-white painting, and Marc (the perennially wisecracking Alan Alda), a cynical pragmatist who dismisses the so-called masterpiece as "shit."
"The play triggers reactions in the audience in the same way that the white canvas triggers reactions among Marc, Serge and Yvan," speculates 31-year-old Matthew Warchus, director of both the British and the American productions. "It's ironic, with quotation marks," playwright Reza explains about her elusive title. "It describes the play, the painting, the friendship. Everything is art."
Sparely written, Reza's 90-minute play traps her three characters in a circular conversation about taste, values and loyalties. "There's room for filling in the gaps with your a imagination," Alda comments. The equally stark set simply consists of the painting, variously positioned and lit, three chairs and a table, and the canvas almost becomes a character in its own right; at one point it is propped on a chair, preventing one of the men from sitting down.
Is Art a comedy or a drama? "It's clearly a comedy," Alda responds with Marc-like certainty. "This is going to sound pretentious," Molina prefaces, "but it's either a serious comedy or a flippant drama." "It's a serious play that's really funny," offers Garber. "It's a very funny tragedy," replies Warchus. "The humor is of recognition, but the misunderstandings and the hurt caused are catastrophic."