Lots of fights are said to be about nothing. But in the French playwright Yasmina Reza’s ingenious 1994 comedy “Art” (which won the Tony for Best Play in 1998, among other awards), three friends argue about something that really represents the epitome of nothingness: An all-white four-foot-by-five-foot painting.
Not that it’s totally blank, one character argues. “If you screw up your eyes, you make out some fine white diagonal lines,” he says.
The canvas certainly seems blank, though, from the point of view of the audience in the production that the Centenary Stage Company is currently presenting at the Sitnik Theatre in Hackettstown. Which is fine, since “Art” isn’t really about what’s on the canvas, but what this alleged work of art does to the friendship of Serge (played by Carl Wallnau), Marc (Randall Duk Kim) and Yvan (Kevin Carolan).
Serge, a successful dermatologist, is proud of his purchase of this work, which has been created by a well-known artist. He has, in fact, paid 200,000 francs (equivalent to about $40,000 1994 U.S. dollars) for it. And it seems to be, if nothing else, a sound financial investment: He says a dealer is willing to pay him 220,000 francs for it, though he’s not selling.
Marc, an aeronautical engineer, is having none of it, and bluntly proclaims it a “piece of shit.” Serge, naturally, digs in and defends it, countering that Marc isn’t sophisticated enough to appreciate it. It “conforms to laws you don’t understand,” he argues.
Enter their mutual friend Yvan, a stationary salesman, who tries to play the peacemaker. He agrees with Marc, deep down, but diplomatically tells Serge what he wants to hear: that he feels the painting represents “the completion of a journey,” and that “I felt a resonance” when he saw it. If Serge can afford it and it makes him happy, Yvan says, what’s the harm in it?
Reza, of course, is not primarily interested in theories about abstract art. She’s interested in how this depiction of nothingness creates a rift between these men, and how they deal with it. Even the set is something of a blank slate that the characters project themselves onto: Mainly it’s Serge’s rather plain living room, though the action sometimes shifts to Marc’s and Yvan’s homes, at which time we see a painting on display in their living rooms (Marc’s, suitably, is quite traditional, while Yvan’s is a bit offbeat, as if to show that he doesn’t take art seriously). Each character speaks directly to the audience at different times.
“Art” may be, on one level, a play-length argument, but Reza builds to a surprisingly dramatic climax — with one character doing something that’s absolutely shocking — and then a satisfying denouement.
“Art” also ends up feeling more universal than you might expect at first. For while we may not all be able to relate to this specific scenario, we all know the frustration of dealing with people who we feel are dead wrong about something, but just don’t see it. People who, alas, are probably thinking the exact same thing about us.
“Art” will be at the Sitnik Theatre at the Lackland Performing Arts Center in Hackettstown through March 4; visit centenarystageco.org.