The Art of the Blank Canvas

A few years ago, I visited the home of a local museum curator. He took me on a tour of his private collection, a series of dreary sculptures and oversize canvases and a scary assemblage made from old mascara brushes and plastic Dairy Queen spoons that he swore represented the evolution of contemporary culture. The tour ended at his favorite piece, a painting that he held aloft and discussed lovingly while he turned it to and fro.

This man talked for what seemed like hours about "postmodern influences," using words like "melancholic" and "resonant" to describe this "incandescent work of art." Aside from the tiniest bit of visible texture, the canvas was utterly blank.

I was reminded of this horrible little man last weekend at Arizona Theatre Company's production of Art, Yasmina Reza's splendid Tony Award-winning play about, among other things, the pretense of the contemporary art world. The story concerns a trio of beautifully written and barely likable guys who refer to one another as "best friends" but spend the play's 90 minutes squabbling about an entirely white painting one of them has just purchased.

David Pichette is delightfully serene as Serge, a wealthy doctor and somewhat gullible art collector who's just paid 200,000 francs for a largely empty canvas. He's comfortable with the madness of his purchase but less comfortable with the reactions of his pals. Marc, played at fever pitch by Frank Corrado, is so disturbed with the acquisition that he's compelled to rant about the true meaning of the painting: It stands, he believes, for Serge's abandonment of their friendship and the death of his idolatry of Marc. Marc laughs at the ridiculous painting and its extravagant price, while milquetoast Yvan blathers brilliantly about his own woes but vacillates about his friend's big buy. Is the painting a senseless waste of money? Yes. Does he like it? Yes. Is either opinion true? Perhaps.

This last fellow is played by Bob Sorenson, who's sporting a newly bobbed nose that looks very much like his old one. On one hand, Sorenson offers yet another variation on the lovable goofball he's assayed dozens of times before. On the other, he does so much more with the role than others I've seen play it, shrewdly investing Yvan with clownish qualities that defy our ire at his spinelessness.

Yvan has the best dialogue, not to mention a pair of showstopping monologues that prove that the star of this show, regardless of who is playing it, is the author. Her speeches (beautifully nuanced, one can assume, by her American translator, Christopher Hampton) question the nature of loyalty and friendship. Her people shift gears like race car drivers and are, therefore, always exciting and new.

While these folks are flailing funnily away, they're raising keen questions ("Am I too dumb to see the painting's true beauty?" "Is Serge pretentious and stupid?" "Why are these guys friends?") without ever giving away any answers. This ambivalence adds a lot to the play and -- like really good theater should -- sends us away thinking about what we've just seen.

William Forrester's metaphorically colorless set provides cunning contrast to the occasional key prop (a bright red book; a navy ink pen), and Tracy Odishaw's lightning-quick lighting changes yank the players out of their story and plunge the set into darkness whenever one of the men turns to speak to the audience.

Director David Ira Goldstein divines the script's comedy (Is the painting trash and is Serge an idiot for buying it?) from its central question (Do true friends tell you the truth at any cost?) without forfeiting a single punch line. There are some contrived moments, like the bit about the olive pits (I laughed anyway; you will, too) and some unnecessary nonsense about Yvan's mother. But Goldstein builds these bits into comical reprieves from Reza's gorgeous but incessant philosophizing. The end result is a thinking man's comedy that's really about the art of friendship.