Matthew Reddin
MCT’s ‘Art’

Friendship, too, is in the eye of the beholder

Yasmina Reza's complex, Tony-winning play about three friends whose relationships are falling apart is enacted beautifully by a talented trio led by director Tyler Marchant.

By - Aug 10th, 2013 01:29 pm
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"'Art'" depicts three friends whose relationships are collapsing: Marc (Brian Mani, L), Yvan (Tom Klubertanz, C), and Serge (C. Michael Wright, R). All photos credit Mark Frohna.

“‘Art'” depicts three friends whose relationships are collapsing: Marc (Brian Mani, L), Yvan (Tom Klubertanz, C), and Serge (C. Michael Wright, R). All photos credit Mark Frohna.

Serge has purchased a grossly expensive painting, near-white lines on a white background. His friend Marc hates it, and tells him so. His friend Yvan has bigger problems. And, in Yasmina Reza’s play ‘Art,’ the word “friend” is as much an accusation as a term of endearment.

Milwaukee Chamber Theatre has chosen to open their season with this Tony-winning comedy, a complex three-man showcase for Brian Mani (Marc), Tom Klubertanz (Yvan) and MCT’s producing artistic director C. Michael Wright (Serge) – and while the play may hinge on bitter disagreements between friends, it seems hard to imagine you and yours not agreeing that it’s a hilarious yet captivating start to MCT’s promising season.

Admittedly, the play itself puzzles me still.  The dialogue in“Art” is clearly tuned to a comic note, but its subject matter – friendships falling apart – is steadfastly serious. Its pivotal scene features lengthy recapitulations of the same arguments, which hold your attention in the moment but feel increasingly unnecessary until they reach the perfect, pithy counterweight that shifts the tension in a whole new direction. Interestingly, it’s as watchable as a heavier-than-usual evening’s diversion as it is imaginable as a sharp, weighty look at how we treat and perceive our friends – there are more than a few moments (including, surprisingly, the very last, very emotionally grounded scene) where some audience members reacted with uproarious laughter and others studied the moment in sober contemplation.

Each of the three friends takes turns stepping out of the action for quick asides, which reveal elements of their personality they unintentionally conceal while interacting with each other.

Each of the three friends takes turns stepping out of the action for quick asides, which reveal elements of their personality they unintentionally conceal while interacting with each other.

It is, then, all the more credit to this trinity of actors and director Tyler Marchant that their performance never becomes anything less than a masterwork. ‘Art’ makes the argument that friends don’t allow you to be your true self because you adjust your personality to each of them, and all three of Marchant’s actors can flip between their “selves” with pinpoint precision, while hinting at the core self they only reveal alone throughout.

Serge, for instance: In his solitary moments (soliloquys staggered throughout the play cued by amazing lightwork—but more on that later), he’s sensitive, earnest, seeking validation for his artistic eye and newfound sense of aesthetic. Wright takes that base material and molds himself into a cold intellectual always needling Marc and a merely frosty pal angling for Yvan’s admiration. Yet even when he is pushed to the extreme of those viewpoints, when he reaches moments of self-superiority that should make him detestable, Wright lets a little of that insecurity show.

Marc is just as pretentious as Serge, but in the opposite way – always tearing down the idols Serge builds up – and, in a very real sense, without knowing it, as Mani plays him. He’s the one who sparks conflict, taking a personal slight in Serge’s purchasing the painting and Yvan not wanting to ally with him in laughing at the ridiculous purchase. He too reaches detestable extremes, but Mani has too fierce a grasp to let that keep you from hanging on his every word.

Then there’s Yvan, who will be whatever his friends need him to be and has larger complaints than whether or not to have bought an expensive painting: years of neuroses wearing him down, a career he has no passion for and an increasingly stressful wedding to plan. Klubertanz plays him as a tightly wound rant waiting to happen, and when it does happen, it’s a triumph: a five-minute long speech, wandering around Serge’s apartment, which is both hilariously wonderful in itself and as a bonus drives home Yvan’s negligible importance to the other members of the trio. That would be enough in itself to justify his time on stage, but Klubertanz serves as a vital counterpoint to this world of art and high culture, a constant reminder that there’s more to life – and friendship – than climbing an imagined hierarchy.

"'Art's'" set design, meant to evoke the works of Piet Mondrian, is as much a star as the three actors who walk across it.

“‘Art’s'” set design, meant to evoke the works of Piet Mondrian, is as much a star as the three actors who walk across it.

If the production has a fourth star (and it most certainly does), it’s the stage, an inspired riff on Piet Mondrian’s works conceived by Marchant and executed with scenic designer Keith Pitts and lighting designer Jason Fassl. At the start, it’s almost all white – much like the painting in question – but LED lights flash reds, blues and yellows at the audience, alternating in hue and proportion to represent each character: Marc/red, Serge/blue, Yvan/yellow. It’s a dazzling effect that does a great deal to set the mood of the production without being so gaudy as to distract.

‘Art’ runs through August 25 at the Milwaukee Chamber Theatre. Tickets range from $15 to $40, with a $5 discount for students and seniors, and can be purchased at (414) 291-7800 or the MCT online box office.

Categories: Art, Theater

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