Nothing much happens in Yasmina Reza's Art, a 21-year-old classic that opened its run at the St. Louis Actors Studio last Friday. Serge, a dermatologist, has bought a very expensive piece of modern art. Marc, his friend of fifteen years, loathes it. Their more conciliatory sidekick, Yvan, is caught in the middle. That's really about it.
And yet the play, and this production, manages to be riveting. The slight premise proves a jumping-off point from which the supremely talented cast explores the merits of modern art, the way money divides us, and ultimately, the demands we make of friendship. The three actors are utterly believable and surprisingly compelling -- never more so than when they're behaving ridiculously.
As for ridiculous, you could start with Serge's purchase. The art he's bought is a white square, for which he's paid the princely sum of 200,000 francs. Hey, it's an Antrios -- an Antrios from the '70s! And Antrios is "well-known."
Reza stacks the deck a bit against this purchase: The square's only feature beyond its whiteness is that it supposedly has very subtle diagonal lines across it ... in white. Ridiculed by his old friend, Serge protests, "Huntingdon would take it off my hands for 220,000." Huntingdon, we learn, works for the gallery that sold Serge the white whale, setting us up for the idea that Serge is very likely a chump.
And through the eyes of his old friend Marc, we begin to realize something else. Serge is also a social climber. This painting represents who he wants to be, and the crowd he hopes to get in with.
All of which leaves Marc feeling left behind, and behaving badly. It's not enough to insult the dermatologist to his face -- he also enlists Yvan in his campaign. But Yvan is too wishy-washy ("an amoeba," sneers Marc) to play the role Marc has chosen for him. Soon all three friendships are in jeopardy.
"Why do we see each other if we hate each other?" Yvan cries at one point. And while in the moment it's a valid question, it ultimately betrays the character's naivete. These three don't hate each other; they've hurt each other, and that's far worse.
As Yvan, Larry Dell has a wonderfully expressive face -- he seems ready to burst into tears even when he's smiling -- and a gentler manner than his alpha male friends. But in a play with three remarkable roles, it's he who's given the greatest gift, a marvelous monologue right in the middle of the action that goes on for what must be a good five minutes. Dell nails it; in his hands, the scene is a hilarious tour de force.
As Serge, Drew Battles is given subtler moments, but does more with a raised eyebrow than many actors do with a soliloquy. He's terrific, as is John Pierson as the angry, self-certain Marc. Both theater veterans in full command of the material, Battles and Pierson are at their best when their characters turn on Yvan. The friendship between Serge and Marc suddenly makes sense when we see them ganging up on their hapless companion. They are both rapacious, too clever and too opinionated for their own good, and we understand that they've wounded each other so deeply mostly because they admire each other so much.
And yet, Reza's play asks sensibly, why do we insist on validation from our friends? Why does Serge care if Marc likes his purchase? And why does Marc persist in judging Serge so harshly for making it? By seeing our friends as an extension of ourselves, by insisting they share not only our lives but our values, we can't help but set ourselves up for disappointment.
Directed by Wayne Salomon, who as chair of the theater department at John Burroughs School taught both Jon Hamm and Ellie Kemper, the play is tautly structured: a brisk 90 minutes, without intermission. Between scenes, the actors break the fourth wall and address the audience, à la Richard III (or Frank Underwood), an old device that somehow still feels modern.
And so, too, does Reza's play. Written in French, first performed in the '90s, it holds up admirably in this new staging. Watching these three actors, we might imagine the words were written for them and that the action takes place in 2015 St. Louis. Time may march on, but the complications of friendship never seem to get lost in translation.
Art Through May 3 at Gaslight Theater, 358 North Boyle Avenue. Tickets are $30 to $35. Call 314-458-2978 or click here for tickets.