Ever find yourself on the verge of unfriending people on social media because, no matter how many posts you seem to like from them, you just can’t stand their views on one seemingly insignificant subject? Well, Blank Canvas Theatre has captured that feeling with its production of the critically acclaimed Art, which, while it was penned a full decade prior to the birth of Facebook, feels essentially of the moment.
The French-language play, written by Yazmina Reza and translated by Christopher Hampton, begins when Serge (Chris D’Amico), an affluent dermatologist and aspiring art connoisseur, invites his old friend Marc (Brian Pedaci) to gaze upon his latest purchase: a painting of white lines on a white background. Upon first glance, Marc is befuddled, then angered. He wonders why his dear friend would make such a seemingly frivolous and expensive decision. Marc then, without making his intentions fully known, visits their mutual friend, the ever-accommodating, always-persuadable Yvan (Michael N Herzog) to sway Yvan to his side of the internal argument brewing inside of himself. This is where the air begins to thicken between these three superficially ‘normal’ people.
Marc and Serge’s disagreement— both towards each other and behind each other’s backs to an unwitting Yvan— begins as a debate of what is and isn’t art that’s been played out through the history of post-modern art.. This at-first harmless debate slowly degrades into bitter jabs at each other’s philosophies, temperaments and life decisions to the point where even Yvan trying to quash the conversation makes the argument grow more malignant with each passing word and confession. Their rationale and reasons for frustration border on sideshow-attraction levels of craziness, which is more than once pointed out by Yvan, who is more or less a captive fool subject to both Marc and Serge’s rage.
The play itself in its initial concept feels like a mash-up between Grumpy Old Men and an episode of Seinfeld. Criticisms of the latter, that is a show about nothing, can also be levied at Art. But the fervent response that the sitcom was very much a show about everything can and should be used in regards to Art. That it's about the trials and tribulations of strained relationships, the conceptual argument of what exactly art is and can be, the personal attacks one feels if their beliefs are questioned, and the dynamics of friend groups.
Much like an actual argument, the play has its share of ebbs and flows, and rounds back to tired topics again and again like so many cliché martial spats. Here, Serge and Marc are the bitter old couple who really need to get out more. Subsequently, Art doesn’t exactly follow a traditional play structure, instead playing as more of an ongoing conversation, between each character as well as directly to the audience, in a level of intimacy that reaches uncomfortable points when the worst words really start to fly from the friends’ lips.
Director Lara Mielcarek has strived and succeeded to keep the intimacy of the conversation between Serge, Marc and Yvan intact and highlight its surprising relatability. Serge and Marc’s wildly different subjective and objective points of view clash with the most unassuming and pettiest of remarks, and watching the conversation descend into madness makes for some comical and shocking moments.
The leading men also understand this intimacy fully, and have enough moxie to deliver Art’s biting dialogue with a beguiling wit. What was once performed on Broadway by greats such as Alfred Molina and Alan Alda feels tailor-made for these three performers.
As Serge, D’Amico resembles a younger Rob Reiner with his acerbic tone and a cynicism that is just enjoyable to witness. In making his debut, Pedaci gives a performance guaranteed to invite a return to Canvas’ stage, with a love-to-hate, alpha-male composure and enticing, powerful voice. Not to be outdone, Herzog captivates with every zany antic and crazed monologue, and captures attention without any need for a spotlight.
Speaking of spotlights, lighting designer Brad Hughes’s use of color, especially during the monologues, really accentuates the personalities and differences of the characters.
Additionally, a minimalist stage designed by Patrick Ciamacco provides a multifaceted setting with as few moving parts as possible, aside from the imaginative turnstile backdrop to switch environments.
With no intention of sounding coy, Blank Canvas’ presentation of Art— and, to a higher degree, the original script itself— is similar to piece of abstract art and how it can be interpreted every which-way possible and, in that sense, isn’t for everyone.
However, in a play that strips conflict down to its barest essentials, it truly shines in its ability to pull you in with so little left to the imagination. Its brevity— clocking in at under 90 minutes— is a testament to its ability to capture so much in so little time. And like the expensive painting adorning Serge’s wall, a story that appears to be plain and nondescript on paper becomes vivid and lush with personality upon a closer look.
Catch Art through April 20 at Blank Canvas Theatre (1305 West 78th Street, Suite 211, Cleveland). For tickets and info, call 440-941-0458 or visit blankcanvastheatre.com