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'Art' Smart

Provocative play delivers thoughtful good time

By Patrick Sullivan

EVER NOTICE how contemporary art really pisses people off? Of course you have. But I'm not talking about the way every third painting that rolls into a Big Apple museum causes Mayor Rudy Giuliani to fall to the floor and start foaming at the mouth as if he were auditioning for Exorcist II: Mephistopheles Takes Manhattan.

Nope. I'm more interested in the folks who don't bat an eyelash at a photo taken by Robert "crack buttocks, insert whip" Mapplethorpe or a performance piece by Karen "it's my body and I'll smear it with menstrual blood if I want to" Finley.

Because even some of these urbane types develop a Guiliani-type froth when confronted with--gasp!--a monochromatic painting. For them, it's like a red flag in front of a bull to see a painting featuring white stripes on a white background, a painting like the one in Art, now onstage in a cracklingly good production directed by Jim dePriest at Sonoma County Repertory Theatre in Sebastopol.

"You've eliminated form and color, those old chestnuts," exclaims the pugnacious Marc (played with formidable presence by Craig Mason) in ferocious mock admiration of his friend Serge's newly acquired painting. That "piece of white shit" is how a third friend, Yvan (Jonathan Graham), describes the work--once he breaks out of his habitual ass-kissing to express his true feelings.

Art is about friendship. But the play's interpersonal dynamics revolve around that "piece of white shit." Is Serge (the understated John Shillington) an idiot to spend 200,000 francs on a one-color painting? Or is Marc just resentful of Serge's new friendships in the art world? And why do Yvan's attempts to make peace only make matters worse?

The three friends, once close, have been gradually pulling apart anyway. But the monochrome may be the last straw. For Serge, it's a symbol of his participation in the great dialogue of modern art. For Marc, it's a sign that his friend is either a pretentious snob or stupid enough to fall for an obvious scam. For Yvan, the painting is an unwarranted distraction from his angst over his impending wedding.

In Marc's view, the trouble started when Serge started seriously employing terms like deconstruction: "I should have punched him right in the mouth," Marc recalls with a growl. He despises "the rule of novelty, the rule of surprise" that dominate contemporary art.

Such debates take center stage in the play. But don't let that scare you. The dialogue in Art is wonderful stuff--full of snappy, bitchy humor, poignant personal revelations, and thoughtful questions about art and friendship. And this production's three actors carry off even the most elaborate wordplay with adroit skill.

If Art seems a bit retro, if it seems to be revisiting the art wars of decades past, well, so we are in real life. Yasmina Reza's play scored a Tony Award back in 1998, but irksome artwork has continued to plague us into a whole new millennium. Art doesn't offer any easy way out of these debates. But it deliver a thoughtful, provocative good time.

'Art' continues through June 30 at Sonoma County Repertory Theatre, 104 N. Main St., Sebastopol. Tickets are $15 for adults and $12 for seniors and students. 707/823-0177.

From the June 7-13, 2001 issue of the Northern California Bohemian.

© Metro Publishing Inc.

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