With Art, it's all in the name of friendship

    Art is a play by Yasmina Reza (translation by Christopher Hampton)

    Rick Snyder, a Steppenwolf ensemble member, directs while other ensemble members — Ian Barford, K. Todd Freeman and Francis Guinan — with Joe Dempsey and John Procaccino act.

    Steppenwolf’s Upstairs Theatre: 1650 N Halsted St.

    Runs from Feb. 5 to to June 7 More?

    “You paid 200,000 francs for this shit?” laughs Marc, red-faced and wearing a dark gray suit. He’s incredulous. Without consulting him, Marc’s friend Serge has gone out and dropped a small fortune on an Antrios. Not a painting, but an Antrios. More than a painting: a seminal work of Modern Art. It’s a canvas painted entirely white with a few diagonal stripes of bumpy white paint, and Serge is still deciding where to hang it in his apartment, which is also decorated and furnished mostly in white. Serge, a dermatologist (literally, a superficial profession; think science of surfaces…), wears a light gray suit. Trying to figure out where to hang the masterpiece, Serge stands at the edge of the stage and frames the audience with his hands, “Maybe here.” With exposed, custom edges, it is a painting too perfect to be framed; The Artist did not intend a frame. Reza does.

    She frames Art for the stage, using the white (perhaps empty) painting as the final jab that shoves a 15-year friendship over the top. The characters move from living-room realism to a series of vicious swipes at each other, each one growing longer, cutting deeper and expressing at length and with great precision the kinds of thoughts that friends might be better off not sharing. Once the first few scenes establish the men as plausible characters, Reza cranks Art into full satiric swing. It’s a play that clips along at hysteric pace — offloading joke after joke, insights and real drama. Its balanced mix of characters will please art lovers, haters, admirers, cynics and anyone willing to indulge a thoughtful comedy. If you’re looking for a quick jaunt off-campus, Art is a great reason to get into Chicago.

    (left to right) John Procaccino (Serge) and ensemble members Francis Guinan (Marc) and K. Todd Freeman (Yvan) in Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s production of Art. Photo by Michael Brosilow / Steppenwolf Theater.

    Snyder’s direction is balanced, but he plays Reza really hard for the laughs. Francis Guinan’s honest outrage motivates the never-ending string of judgments and pronouncements as Marc. He is set across from John Procaccino’s relentless energy and interrogative logic as Serge. Their verbals sparring –- ethos tangling with logos for our affections –- keep the play moving along very fast. They hit almost every comedic note like drummers. K. Todd Freeman, who plays the spineless friend Yvan, is the most physical and the most colorfully clad of the three. He’s also the most pathetic. While Marc and Serge exchange blows over this blank canvas, Freeman plays the part for pity. He’s an emotional spigot, and when he turns on, he runs and runs and runs.

    The staging is so well-done that it shows the cracks and wear in Reza’s script. A Seneca joke lands with a thud; her quip about “deconstruction” feels a little self-aware, a little too coy and copious. The nice thing is it’s the performances that do this, which makes the play really worth seeing –- take a look back at the late 90s and see what was going on while you were still in grade school. The characters played a little too real for the script. What we get is not just more overblown drivel about the berets — only question “What is art?” but a hard look at what friendship really takes, and when it’s been taken too far.

    Art is thrilling because we watch 15 years of hard work come undone with the speed and force of a spring: The show is, at about 80 minutes, succinct and compact. Reza’s writing, at its best, packs complex thoughts in monologues that get spat out at a spine-snapping pace.

    Art is about doing and science is about knowing; Art combines doing and knowing, art and science, for a hard look at how they combine to work or fail in friendship. White in paint is the absence of pigment, but in light, it’s the combination of all colors. Is the painting white? It hardly seems to matter since Marc, Serge and Yvan are all dressed, pretty blatantly, in grays.

    It’s a safe play, well done by the Steppenwolf, but at what price? 200,000 Francs? A year of work? How much work does one night, one purchase, one fight, do or undo?

    Today, the cost of that piece of “shit” is approximately equal to the yearly salary of your average American job. Lucky for you, Steppenwolf tickets are only about $20.


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