If ART were a painting, it'd be a Van Gogh
Jesse Richards - November 13, 1998
four acorns out of four

New York is a city famous for art. But now art is not just hanging in the Metropolitan or sitting in Soho galleries - now it's on Broadway.

ART, the 1998 Tony Award winner for Best Play, is art, beautifully executed. Like a good painting, it is fresh, vibrant, witty, and gives a bit of insight into the human condition. And like the best theater, ART showcases spectacular acting, well-developed characters, realistic drama, and above all, good humor.

ART succeeds because of its simplicity. The play is short - an hour and a half, with no intermission - and direct, and the plot is easy to follow. It is the story of three friends, and they are the only cast of the show. The plot involves their attempt to heal their relationship after a fierce argument threatens it. This tense, multi-faceted relationship is realistic and easy to relate to, and it is what gives ART its heart.

But what gives ART its humor is the art itself - and the characters' reactions to it. The argument at the core of the plot involves a purchase by one of the friends, Serge. He pays 200,000 francs (the play is set in Paris) for a painting that his friend Marc despises. The running joke theme of the play is that the work is a five-foot by four-foot canvas, painted completely white. Marc refers to it throughout the play simply as "the piece of shit." The humor comes out as each character tries to understand the motivations of his friends as well as the meaning behind the work of art itself.

Marc, played by Brian Cox, opens and closes the show. He is loud and domineering. His relationship with Serge, more than any other in the play, is heavily examined in ART. The old friends find themselves at each other's throats more than once throughout the course of the play.

Serge, played by Henry Goodman, is reserved and cultured, with a bit of pretention thrown in. He buys the painting because he thinks it typifies modernity, just as he thinks he does. Marc just thinks he's crazy. He argues with Marc about art, about life, about their respective girlfriends, and tries to get him to read Seneca. Marc, down to earth, thinks the whole thing is an act, and above all can not believe that his friend would buy such a self-righteous and downright ugly painting.

The most pitiful and humorous character in ART is Yvan, played in this production by Henry Strozier, replacing David Haig. Marc said it best - Yvan is a cowardly weasel. He constantly flip-flops sides in Marc and Serge's argument. A highlight of his role is a magnificent five-minute, George Costanza-esque tirade about his bickering family and their overproduction of his upcoming wedding. Together, the three actors manage to bring surprising depth to roles that could easily become stereotypes. Each character has a distinct and exciting personality, and the interaction of those flows smoothly throughout the play.

ART also benefits from a dynamic and artistic presentation. Once again, simplicity is key. The style is artistic enough to complement a show about art. Before the play starts, you see the back of the painting hanging on the curtain, teasing the audience in a brilliant artistic jest. When the show starts, the set looks deceptively plain - three couches and a low table, coffee-colored against off-white walls, with a clear black marble floor. The play starts in Serge's apartment, and then moves to Marc's and Yvan's. Each apartment is actually the same set, with only a flipped panel showing a different painting in each apartment.

The lighting is another striking aspect of ART. During each scene change, which are often and happen quickly, the lights blink out and quirky music jumps in, which stops just as suddenly as it started. There is also an ingeniuos way of dealing with inner monolgues - the scene goes black, with a spotlight on the thinker, as his friends freeze. These thoughts occur in the middle of heated arguments, and humor comes bursting out when what a character says is not what he is really thinking.

One last notable joy of ART again revolves around the sharply-written characters. They become so easy to identify with that audience members feel compelled to pick a favorite. This was a level of the play that went beyond the humor, and generated questions to ponder after the show. Which character am I most like? Which characters are my friends most like? Oh my god, I just had that conversation the other day! Are we really like that?

Even among these other excellent points, ART's true uniqueness is still its humor. The play won the 1997 Oliver Award for Best Comedy, and it's easy to see why. ART relies on good acting and a sharp wit rather than slapstick or puns, and it keeps the audience roaring. Running gags abound in the play, and come at unexpected moments. Surprises in plot and character development also add to the humor. And the punchline at the end - which I won't give away, but involves the painting - is completely unanticipated and hilarious. It is the perfect conclusion to a remarkable production.

ART is playing at the Royale Theater, 242 W. 45th St. It runs Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., Wednesdays and Saturdays at 2 p.m., and Sundays at 3 p.m. For tickets, call 1-800 432-7250.