California Public Theater misses the mark with its new production at The Voice Shop of “ART,” the 1995 French play by Yasmina Reza that tweaked the contemporary art world and delighted Broadway. Instead of a nimble journey pursuing lofty issues of aesthetics and human nature, we get a slog.
There are four characters in the show — three men and a painting. When Serge (Anthony Taylor), a dermatologist, shells out a huge wad of cash for an all-white painting by a famous artist, he can’t wait to show it to his two best friends, Marc (Eric Estep) and Yvan (Steve Olsen). The pair is less than impressed, however, particularly Marc, who seems to take Serge’s purchase as a personal affront.
As the friends pair up to discuss each other’s reactions, a debate flares about art and consumerism. And when the three of them get together for a night on the town, things get explosive.
Reza’s script is a sly, witty and caustic piece that manages to ask such gaping questions as “What is art?” without seeming pretentious or belittling. And when it’s done well, the play has an almost hypnotic trajectory as we watch the complexities of a three-pronged friendship fray, knit together and then fray again before our eyes.
Director Taylor Stephenson isn’t able to reach these heights, however. This “ART” is too heavy-handed, too blustery, and the actors seem to be on different wavelengths. Estep overplays the opening scenes, bordering on bombastic. Olsen grapples with technique — a lengthy monologue is almost incomprehensible because of slurred delivery, reducing a sharply etched moment in the play to dullness. Taylor has some nice moments as Serge, but with the weak direction, he seems mostly stuck in the text.
Even the fourth “character” was problematic, in my eyes. The painting in question — the one that sets off all the fireworks and the raging debate on whether art is in the eye of the beholder — is described as all white with white diagonal lines. (That’s the point of it all: Serge has paid a vast amount of money for an all-white painting.) Yes, the characters debate the presence of colors in the work, but they speak of those colors in terms of threads — so delicate as to be almost imperceptible. (Thus the debate.)
The actual painting in this production of “ART” is not all white, however. It includes various smudges, including a big, gray one across the bottom, clearly visible from the audience. I was confused. This creative decision regarding a prop might seem a minor thing, but to me it is a fundamental misread of the playwright’s intentions.
Eric Day’s set, which suggests a picture frame, has angled wooden walls and a stark black and white color palette. It’s impressive simply because of its presence. (In a tiny storefront space such as this, you don’t often get such substance.) But the set itself seems to confine the production, wedging it into the space, where it should have offered an airy expanse to contemplate the play’s erudite notions.
The actors were further hampered by an unfortunate external situation beyond their control that had nothing to do with the set: noise from the new bar next door. This forced them, I believe, to compensate by speaking louder, which only added to the production’s blustery feel. For such a small theater, I’ll be blunt: Unless California Public Theater can figure out a way to resolve the noise issue with its next-door neighbor or beef up the sound proofing, the Voice Shop will lose its viability as a venue for theater unless what’s being staged is a really loud musical.
A scheduling note: “ART” has dropped its final Sunday performance. An added show will be 8 p.m. Thursday in conjunction with ArtHop.