“Art” streamed at SF Playhouse

“Art” at SF Playhouse

Carol Benet

The SF Playhouse is presenting Yasmina Reza’s ”Art” translated from the French by Christopher Hampton.  It is streamed on-demand through November 7.  This is an unusual project, a filmed version of a fully staged play that is then streamed to an audience.  This could be a game-changer in the world of theater arts, a method devised for the current COVID-19 pandemic when all the performing arts are shut down for safety’s sake.

The production of “Art” was created as any play with actors performing on a stage with a set, costumes,  lights and sound.  This is one of the first stage filming in the country and  the it is completely successful. and enjoyable.  This is one of the best uses of the internet for theatrical performances but then the play with its small cast is perfect and little action where the dialogues are the most important parts. 

“Art” was an immediate hit when it opened in Paris in 1994.  When translated it played in London and on Broadway.  Reza also wrote the hit play “The God of Carnage” and she is a  French novelist and  actress. 

“Art” has three actors, male friends who discuss Serge’s (Johnny Moreno) recent purchase of   a modern painting that is completely white with no figuration what so ever. Mark (Jomar Tagatac), an engineer with no artistic imagination or appreciation, is aghast because his friend paid $200, 000 for it.  Yes Serge is a dermatologist who can afford it but still.  A third friend Yvon (Bobak Bakhtiari) also weighs in on the conversation but he swings back and forth between accepting or denying the worthiness of the purchase.

The three men squabble about the object, the white painting that appears to Serge to have more than just the blank whiteness but in which he sees gradations of subtle colors (like the minimalist works of the time).  The others disagree. They see only a white rectangle. But the conversation goes deeper than the merits or not of the painting.  Mark asks Serge if the purchase made him happy and Mark retorts “Read Seneca”, an ancient author who wrote about happiness. Then their friendships come under inspection.

Yvon has had  many jobs and was once source of amusement for them, a joker.  But now all is changed now that he is soon to be married.  They loved him because he was their eccentric and absurd friend.  The other two could depend on this and this made him enduring to them. His change is hard to take. Yvon  comes late for meeting them to go out to dinner.  He is very agitated because all the step-mothers involved in his marriage (his, hers) want to be included on the invitation to the wedding. He also reveals that he has been talking about his friends with his psychiatrist whom he has been seeing for six years.  They are furious. 

They jab at each other over the merits of the painting and bring up the piece of “motel art” belonging to Yvon but this a sore spot because it was painted by Yvon’s father.  Serge also disparages the mundane landscape of Carcassonne in Mark’s living room.  In moments of verbal crisis Serge not only talks about Seneca but he brings up deconstruction, a literary criticism term bandied around the arts in the time. Mark takes this as an offense saying that Serge is off-standish and condescending with comments like this.  Serge accuses Mark for his smug and snickering insinuations.

They spar on hurts of the past, on personality quirks and they get to a point  of questioning why they are friends in the first place asking each other “what binds them”. They even have .a heated discussion about where they should have dinner, at what restaurant (“not the one with the greasy food”). Even Serge’s inability to stay married comes into the discussion. It becomes a free-for-all and one based on the purchase of a $200,000 minimalist painting that may or may not make Serge happy (read Seneca on this).  

“Art” is a wonderful play, suited to this on stage filming, with a very simple set and only three well-defined  and excellent actors.  Bill English does a brilliant job of direction.   It runs on demand through November 7 and tickets may be purchased at sfplayhouse.org