ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — I’ll never forget standing before an all-black canvas at the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio. The painting was by Frank Stella, and the curator boldly stated, “Are you aware that you are standing before a revolution in art?” Well, no, I wasn’t. All I really saw was black: no illusionistic representation, no perspective. Is this a revolution or a hoax?
Such is the topic of Yasmina Reza’s popular play from the 1990s, “Art,” currently playing at the Adobe Theater, in a first-rate production directed by Marc Comstock.
Serge, a successful dermatologist, has just purchased a painting by a fashionable modern artist for 200,000 euros. Although all we can really see is a white canvas, he insists there are many other shades of color, barely perceptible, but observable if you look closely. His best friend, Marc, is appalled by what to him is a colossal rip-off; after laughing out loud, he tells Serge exactly what he thinks. This difference of opinion will test their friendship, while a third friend – the weak-willed Yvan – is caught in the middle.
The play provokes the question, “What determines the value of art?” But the play is even more concerned with the dynamics of power among men. After all, if Marc is right, Serge is a dupe; if Serge is right, he possesses something of great value that Marc, in his ignorance, is unable to appreciate. Marc is a classicist, Serge is a modernist; Serge was once a protégé of Marc, and now he asserts his independence, offended at his friend’s unwillingness or inability to see the beauty of the “masterpiece” he has acquired.
As Serge, Joe Dallacqua masterfully evinces ostentatious elegance and preening cultural posturing. Does he really love the painting? Or has he been seduced by all the hype? His elongated vowels and crisp diction perfectly suggest the kind of self-important snob most people have little patience for.
Matt Heath is great as Marc, and reminded me of Wallace Shawn in “My Dinner With Andre,” where again we see two friends spar intellectually over values and ideas.
In Comstock’s lively direction, Yvan is caught – in the most concrete way imaginable – between the two, receiving blows that are more than just metaphorical. Jeremy Joynt is very good as the “spineless amoeba,” as he’s called, although either he or the playwright has taken the conceit so far as to be almost unbelievable.
Vic Browder’s set design is excellent, suggesting as it does a modern art connoisseur’s posh abode. Louissa O’Neill’s costume design is also well-done, with punctilious attention to detail (even down to the color and design of the socks). The color tone of the set is mostly various shades of green, and costume, lighting and set design are nicely complementary.
“Art” is playing through March 25 at Adobe Theater, 9813 Fourth NW, Albuquerque. Go to adobetheater.org or call 898-9222 for reservations.