The Theatreguide.London Review
Old Vic Theatre Winter 2016-2017
The original London production of Yazmina Reza's three-character play ran through most of the 1990s, carried by its own merits and by the producer's clever ploy of changing casts every few months, bringing in popular TV and film stars for limited stays.
It is a good vehicle for actors, allowing room for big crowd-pleasing performances while making no excessive demands on the performers' talents.
For this first major revival director Matthew Warchus has cast three solid but not particularly flashy actors and guided them to somewhat subdued performances.
Get caught up in the play's ideas and you may find it fascinating, but watch it from any sort of emotional distance and you may wonder what all the fuss was about.
Serge, an affluent Parisian, has spent 100,000 euros on a piece of modern art that is essentially a blank all-white canvas, and his friend Marc doesn't just think he's crazy but is oddly outraged by the purchase, while a third friend, Yvan, just tries to keep the peace between the other two.
The painting turns out to be a McGuffin, the thing not of any real importance in itself that gets the real action going.
The play really lies in the gradual discovery of just why Marc is so angry and what that exposes about his character, in how realizing this about his friend affects Serge, and what his desperate need for his friends to get along reveals about Yvan and about the others' attitudes toward him.
All this is achieved through indirection, the characters talking about things other than what they're really talking about, and it is that psychological detective story that has to grab and hold you for the play to work.
Reza writes what might as well be radio plays, entirely made of talk, and once you understand that the painting is all-white, there is only one moment, a visual joke, that requires you actually looking at the stage.
Director Warchus and designer Mark Thompson don't give you a whole lot to look at, making the men's flats so minimalist that a blank white canvas might be the most eye-catching thing around.
And except for one bravura set piece for Tim Key as Yvan, the actors are directed to be nearly as blank as the walls.
Paul Ritter has the most complex role as Marc, slowly allowing a self-protective mask of civility and friendliness to be peeled away, but the combination of subtle underplaying and the unattractive character that is gradually revealed keep you from getting involved.
Rufus Sewell finds too little to do with Serge, leaving him little more than a straight man to Marc, and only Tim Key's pathetic little Yvan gives the audience anything to really care about.
There is something interesting and provocative being said in Art about the hidden dynamics beneath what seem like simple friendships.
But you have to do a lot of the work of going to it and finding it, in a play and production that do very little to invite you in.
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