By Lynn Venhaus
At times, friendship is not always the perfect ‘blendship.’ Case in point: “Art,” a razor-sharp comedy currently being staged outdoors by Stray Dog Theatre through Aug. 21.
A friendship that spans 15 years is strained over a piece of modern art – an expensive, pretentious painting that art snob Serge (Ben Ritchie) has purchased to show off his privilege and to gain status.
The judgmental Marc (Stephen Peirick), who is domineering, snarky and self-righteous, takes one look and is aghast at this presumably “white” canvas.
With his “Are you serious?” reaction, Marc doesn’t hold back his horror, bluntly calling the vanity purchase a “piece of (expletive deleted),” even if Serge paid 200,000 francs for it.
Serge vehemently disagrees. He points out there is texture. It is, after all, by an artist of some note.
Later, they pull their more sensitive friend Yvan (Jeremy Goldmeier) into taking sides, and he, not wanting to rock the boat, offers a “maybe it has merit” viewpoint. Now he is caught in the middle between two alpha dogs.
Yvan’s comments push Marc’s buttons even further, calling into question the conciliatory one’s intellectual acumen – and life choices – because he might see some artistic significance.
Yvan is a poorer, put-upon chap about to be married, whose life seems to always be stuck in second gear. Anxious about the wedding, keeping both families’ happy, getting acclimated to a new job – it all seems too much for him, and then the two pals draw him into their tiff.
Serge is a dermatologist, Marc an aeronautical engineer and Yvan, well, he’s not really one with a ‘career’ – he just started working for his future father-in-law in the stationery business.
The subjective debate turns into ugly confrontations that devolve into personal attacks, questioning the meaning of friendship and the definition of art. Their opinions – perhaps over-sharing but doubling down on how they feel – cause immediate fractures. Can respect and trust be restored or will the fallout be too much to overcome?
The dialogue is intricate and brings out each character’s distinctive personalities. As mud is flung, the play still retains some good zingers after 27 years.
All Stray Dog regulars, Peirick, Ritchie and Goldmeier settle into a rhythm that reflects their ease of working with each other.
This clever and humorous work by Yasmina Reza, a master at delving into contemporary foibles and a sharp observer of human behavior, was written in 1994.
Christopher Hampton translated it into English. He won an Oscar this past April for adapting another French playwright, Florian Zeller, into a screenplay for the British film, “The Father.”
“Art” opened on Broadway in 1998 after successful runs in Paris and London, winning the Tony Award for Best Play. It starred Alan Alda (Marc), Victor Garber (Serge) and Alfred Molina (Yvan, Tony nominee).
Reza also wrote “God of Carnage,” which won a Tony Award for Best Play in 2009. That show was produced by Stray Dog Theatre in 2015 and featured Peirick.
Re-emerging after a 16-month coronavirus public health crisis, Stray Dog Theatre has chosen well to begin producing shows again for a live audience.
In a wise stroke during these pandemic times, Artistic Director Gary F. Bell moved the production outside at their usual venue, the Tower Grove Abbey. On the lawn is limited, socially distanced seating, and masks are required (city mandate).
The bare-bones outdoor stage, with scenic design by Josh Smith, features two couches to represent the flats of Serge and Yvan – and of course, artwork, relying on its trio of accomplished actors to focus the action on their nimble wordplay.
Longtime lighting designer Tyler Duenow handled those duties and Justin Been, associate artistic director, provided his usual stellar sound design with acumen for appropriately selected music
The dialogue is challenging, and the actors must shift tones, delivery and their body language while staying true to the characters, no easy feat. The trio hit their stride – despite after such a long absence from the stage – and retain the play’s acid bite.
Goldmeier is splendid at portraying a sad sack trying to avoid confrontation and scrutiny. It’s obviously not his day, week, month or even year. His emotional fragility and near-meltdown are played for laughs, and Goldmeier adroitly handles the mood swings – and his complicated monologues.
Peirick conveys the tightly wound traits of Marc, while Ritchie delivers a nuanced portrait of a sophisticate, holding his ground about his beliefs and acquisitions.
Marc will go on to question everything – including choice of restaurant for dinner — mostly in a sarcastic, irritated tone. It’s clear that Serge thinks he is intellectually superior to his friends, and more cultured, while Yvan has valued their companionship, especially in light of his messier life.
Keenly in tune with the material and his actors’ capabilities, Bell has smoothly directed the show.
“Art” is a provocateur, questioning our thoughts on art, relationships and modern society. It’s a refreshing conversation starter for anyone craving intellectual stimulation and presented in a safe setting for an evening of entertainment.
“Art” runs about 90 minutes without intermission. The Stray Dog Theatre presentation is Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., Aug. 5-21, with an additional performance on Sunday, Aug. 15 at 8 p.m., outdoors on the lawn at Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee Avenue. The seating pods of 2 and 4, for only 40 guests, will be filled from front to back, in guest arrival order, starting a half hour before curtain. For tickets or more information: straydogtheatre.org or call 314-865-1995.
All staff and crew will be wearing masks. Actors will not be wearing masks but are required to be vaccinated to work at Stray Dog Theatre. All guests, vaccinated or not, are asked to wear masks now that a city mandate is in effect.
FYI – Four of the remaining seven shows are sold out.
Lynn Venhaus has had a continuous byline in St. Louis metro region publications since 1978. She is a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, currently reviews films for Webster-Kirkwood Times and KTRS Radio, covers entertainment for PopLifeSTL.com and co-hosts podcast PopLifeSTL.com…Presents, and writes features and news for Belleville News-Democrat and contributes to other publications. She is a member of CCA, AWFJ and St. Louis Film Critics Association. She is a founding member of the St. Louis Theater Circle.