"Three is a magic number," as Schoolhouse Rock! taught us. Ever traveled or, God forbid, lived with two of your friends? If it's not unanimous, someone always loses, and there's always that tipping-point tension -- no spare legs to keep the whole thing upright.
In Yasmina Reza's Art, currently at Desert Stages Theatre, a man pays quite a bit of money for a painting that two of his friends agree (at least in private) is of questionable value. Around this seemingly trivial issue swirls a maelstrom of previously unexpressed pain, resentment, and insecurity that is, naturally, funny as all hell when it isn't a little scary, making for a very cool play.
It reminds me fondly of the recently separated Sean and Robin Wright Penn's onscreen restaurant argument (a.k.a. "How can you not care whether we eat French or Chinese?") in David Rabe's Hurlyburly:
Darlene: I don't care.
Eddie: What do you mean, you don't care?
Darlene: It doesn't matter to me anymore.
Eddie: No, it matters, and you care. What you mean is it doesn't make any difference!
Perhaps partly because she's a woman, perhaps also because she's a Francophone, Hungarian-Iranian writer (the English translation of Art is by Christopher Hampton), Reza's three male characters strike a note of naturalism and self-disclosure that feels very real but is rarely heard on an American or British stage (or, for that matter, in life, if you haven't had many middle-aged men open their hearts to you).
I mean, we all know why we don't always say everything we think about a friend's spouse, for instance. Here, we see the consequences when someone reaches the breaking point and does reveal those thoughts. It's a cool script indeed, with a unique perspective.
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And the ensemble at DST, directed by Mark-Alan C. Clemente, is completely up to it, proving (in alternating-weekend rep with the sooner-to-close Agnes of God) that small, somewhat more serious plays can work as well as musicals and broader comedies on the little Actor's Café stage. Walt Pedrano, Wade Moran, and Jeffrey J. Davey all give strong and distinct performances, handling the script's structure deftly and showing not just who they are, but what they perceive in each other, whether accurately or not.
As sometimes happens in theater, this production includes one jarring misstep that someone, I keep telling myself, will become a better person for having been made aware of. (Hey, it's happened to me, so . . .) Lisa Rosenbloom has created a painting for each of the characters' apartments -- the painting the play is "about" and two others -- and one of them is described as a Flemish landscape. The painting that appears onstage is very clearly an imitation of Van Gogh's Starry Night, which is very clearly not a Flemish landscape.
Most theater companies don't hire a dramaturg -- there aren't very many of them around to begin with, and they generally expect to get paid for their work. In their absence, directors, assistant directors, and stage managers have to pick up the slack of getting the details right (i.e., this is not Ms. Rosenbloom's fault, but she might want to be careful whom she trusts).
Art continues every other weekend through Sunday, July 25, at Desert Stages Theatre, 4720 North Scottsdale Road in Scottsdale. Order here or call 480-483-1664 for tickets, $20 to $25.