Theater review: ‘Art’ sets off ugly confrontations

Subjective views of art affect three friends, as it touches off a heated debate and forces ugly confrontations in the provocative comedy “Art.”

The sharp-edged Tony-winning play of contemporary manners works well in St. Louis Actors Studio’s black box theatre, with distinct synergy by its acting trio of Drew Battles as Serge, Larry Dell as Yvan, and John Pierson as Marc, who reminds one of actor Richard Dreyfuss in his prime.

Wayne Solomon’s crisp, clean direction allows for the performers to uphold a dynamic rhythm throughout its 90-minutes without an interruption.

The on-point casting gives us true colors of three supposedly good friends who allow a tiff to spiral into a knock-down drag-out fight of epic proportions. And it’s all over a piece of modern art.

A white block canvas with some sort of texture if you look close, by an artist of some note, is the latest vanity purchase by Serge. It’s clear he has expensive tastes and values status symbols. He has paid 200,000 francs for this all-white painting that Marc finds ludicrous, and tells him so. This drags Yvan, who has his own problems with an impending marriage, into the fight, and he’s reluctant to damage their 15-year friendship. Serge and Marc are the alpha dogs, while Yvan, showing more sensitivity, takes on the role of the conciliator until it gets too personal, and he is wounded in the crossfire.

Set in Paris, the English translation by Christopher Hampton flows vitriol and bromides in equal measure. The bickering gets intense, and insults are hurled. There are pockets of comic relief, but mud gets flung, and if you wince at such behavior, you are warned.

Can a long friendship survive such fractures? Can respect and trust be rebuilt or is the fallout permanent? That’s the heart of the matter.

A chic contemporary set by meticulous Christie Johnson, who varied the scenes by artwork depicted on an LED screen, is notable. The sleek modern apartment is among the fresh touches to Yasmina Reza’s play that maintains its zest and effective zingers 17 years later after its heralded Broadway run. Patrick Huber’s lighting design always illuminates scenes superbly, and is particularly effective in a show about art.

The dialogue gets a tad tedious, and the personalities ornery, but what transpires is an interesting look at human behavior and the visceral nature of art.

At a glance

What: “Art”

When: Thursday through Sunday, April 30-May 3

Who: St. Louis Actors Studio

Where: Gaslight Theatre, Boyle Ave., St. Lous

Tickets: 314-458-2978, www.slas.org