Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The "I" of the beholder

Photo by Andrew Brilliant.

We're having our Yasmina Reza moment in Boston right now: this week you can catch the Huntington's production of God of Carnage, or the Polanski film version (just Carnage), OR an earlier Reza opus, ART, which has just opened at the New Rep (through February 5).

The surprise is that the New Rep production may be the best of the lot, and it would be too bad if it got lost in the Reza shuffle.  Not that it's perfect - its opening section lacks drive - but Antonio Ocampo-Guzman's production slowly builds into an intriguing meditation on Reza's actual theme in ART (which the Huntington mostly misses in God of Carnage): in a nutshell, how much of our identities, and our relationships, are a matter of projection.

But first a note on the playwright.  Reza has for some time occupied a strange place in the gender-theatre wars, for her career has contradicted the chorus of complaint from many female playwrights that the Broadway deck was stacked against them.  For while Theresa Rebeck and Sarah Ruhl have indeed had trouble launching a genuine hit on the Great White Way, Reza has gotten rich off the two smashes now playing in the Hub (which were actually global, not just Broadway, successes).  Now she's completely bankable - one of the few bankable female playwright alive.

The explanation from the Rebeck camp for Reza's career arc was that her work was too funny, too lightweight, and too commercial.  And it's certainly funny, that much is true.  The rest of the feminist snark against her is looking harder to justify, I think.  I'm not sure where I rate Reza quite yet - but she's certainly far more interesting than Rebeck or Ruhl; simply put, she has been successful while they have not because her plays are quite a bit better than theirs.

It helps of course that Reza is unusual among female playwrights in being able to write men so convincingly, and through little if any judgmental political screen; even though the men of ART and God of Carnage are pretty epicene by Amurrican standards, they seem as masculine as Mamet might have written them. But Reza does not seem to share the politics of the new-play-development club in general - and politics has always been what the scuffles over her career have been about.  I'm not sure precisely where Reza lands on the political spectrum, but certainly she casts a cold eye on the platitudes of Paula Vogel and her acolytes.  That's largely what Carnage is concerned with.  ART is about something else - something that's a little hard to formulate, actually, which may be why the play often seems to morph in style and focus before our eyes.

You're probably heard the set-up: Serge (Robert Walsh), a yuppie with inclinations toward the artistic, has purchased a white-on-white painting for an outrageous sum; to be fair to him, he seems genuinely taken with the thing.  But when he unveils it to his friends, they're shocked - and best-buddy Marc (Robert Pemberton) is offended, really: the monochrome canvas (there are actually two shades of white on it, for whatever that's worth)  seems to sum up for him everything he finds vapid and pretentious about contemporary art and the art market.  The trouble is that there's something vapid and pretentious about Marc, too - and as for peacemaker Yvan (Doug Lockwood), his constant desire to take both sides in every debate only barely conceals the fact that in his personal life he's basically an emotional doormat.

By now you may have already guessed that Reza's real theme isn't the outrageousness of the art scene at all; the white canvas at the center of ART is clearly what Hitchcock would have called a MacGuffin.  No, it's the problem of interpretation in general that Reza has in her sights, and as this trio of opposed personalities battle out their differences over contemporary painting, we realize she has subtly posited the disturbing notion that they themselves are as blank as the tabula rasa they're debating.  They see in each other only what they want to see - just as Serge does with his monochrome - which means that their friendship, their past history, even the meaning of their lives, are all built on the shifting sands of vanity.  Which also means even their conflicts must prove evanescent; this trio sometimes comes to blows (in a moment that's currently under-developed, btw), and sometimes seems to be about to betray their most basic commitments to each other; and yet everything eventually blows over.  Now you see something in the painting; but now you don't.

At the New Rep, after a slow start, Ocampo-Guzman's cast charts this ebb and flow with admirable skill.  I felt Doug Lockwood (an acquaintance of mine, btw) was the stand-out as the sweetly blundering, vaguely contemptible Yvan; his long monologue of helpless, hapless complaint was a nearly-perfect aria of pained, pathetic nebbishness.  Meanwhile, as Serge and Marc, Walsh and Pemberton were superficially just as good, with Pemberton's glittering contempt icily mirroring Serge's suavely earnest self-regard.  But the note I'd give these two is that the motor of the drama is actually submerged for much of the play in their complicated relationship (Yvan is merely a fellow-traveler) - a bond which, in classic Gallic style, is rooted in vanity as much as it is in affection, and which is at least as competitive as it is needy.  If the initial parries and thrusts of these two are to grip us, somehow that dynamic must be moving forcefully beneath the surface of the lines from the very start.  Once open hostilities have broken out, however, both actors are in clover, and this ART feels like anything but a white-on-white blank.  The tasteful setting, which could have concealed a sharper twist of satire, is by Justin Townsend; the accurate costumes are by Gail Astrid Buckley; and Christopher Hampton's translation is strong enough to blithely survive a slew of contemporary French high-cult references.

Just one general note in closing: after Artistic Director Kate Warner's abrupt departure last spring, I thought this would prove a rocky season at the New Rep; but instead it seems like a new kind of identity may at last be emerging at this mid-size stalwart - and my gut is that it may be due to the coalescing of a new directorial circle around the theatre.  Subtler direction, more thoughtful performances, and a sense of keen character observation have reigned in Collected Stories, Three Viewings, and now ART; and as artistic identities go, I wouldn't say that's a bad one.

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