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.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              

Ben Ritchie, Stephen Peirick and Jeremy Goldmeier in “Art” at Stray Dog Theatre. Photo by John Lamb.

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.

Stephen Peirick, Ben Ritchie in “Art.” Photo by John Lamb.

“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.

By Lynn Venhaus
Managing Editor
Stray Dog Theatre’s “Guys and Dolls” has gusto from the guys and gumption from
the dolls, giving it an extra shot of pizzazz.

This snazzy ensemble puts oomph in every song and every
scene, and the young cast provides a freshness to the material that makes this
delightful confection very charming.

One of Broadway’s most beloved golden-age classics, the 1950
Frank Loesser musical comedy is such a fixture in school and community theater
that you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who hasn’t seen it, been on a crew
or acted in it.

Nearly everyone who has a connection to the play looks back
on it fondly, as you just can’t find fault with those peppy numbers, no matter
how times have changed. The colorful characters are based on Damon Runyon’s
short stories, included in Jo Swerling’s book and polished by the renowned late
comedy writer Abe Burrows.

“Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat” – Photo by John LambGary F. Bell’s tight direction, along with Jennifer
Buchheit’s effervescent musical direction and Mike Hodges’ dynamic choreography,
has created a high-spirited production that pops with personality.

The show is not merely a blast from the past but a peppery,
spry and amusing tale of high rollers and holy rollers finding common ground in
the hustle and bustle of Times Square.

This production is distinguished by Sara Rae Womack’s bubbly Adelaide, Kevin O’Brien’s conflicted and goofy Nathan Detroit and Mike Wells’ happy-go-lucky Nicely-Nicely Johnson, whose warm tenor propels “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat” to be the showstopper it should be.

Womack, employing a Betty Boop voice, delivers one of her
strongest performances to date as the optimistic entertainer Miss Adelaide, who
has been engaged to Nathan for 14 years. It’s complicated. Womack hits the
sweet spot giving long-suffering Adelaide sass but a genuine sincerity too. She
and the sunny O’Brien are terrific together, especially in “Sue Me.” And she is
a born showgirl leading the Hot Box Girls in “A Bushel and a Peck” and “Take
Back Your Mink.”

The Hot Box Girls. Photo by John LambWomack, O’Brien and Wells have energy to spare, and their
enthusiasm playing these roles is contagious, as are the wise-guys and Hot Box Girls
who all appear to be having fun.

The animated players Cory Frank as Benny Southstreet, Stephen Henley as Harry the Horse, Yianni Perahoritis as Angie the Ox, Bryce Miller as Rusty Charlie and Jordan Wolk as Liver Lips Louie shake the dust from dodgier versions and deliver that unique slang-antiquated dialogue splendidly. Then, there is comical Zachary Stefaniak just killing it as the imposing hustler Big Jule. He makes the most of his crap-game moments and doesn’t have to say much to elicit laughs.

The endearing guys have us at “Fugue for Tinhorns” and then
it’s crisply-staged jaunty song and dance, and joyful interactions after that –
especially a robust “The Oldest Established” and the title song, “Luck Be a
Lady.”

“Fugue for Tinhorns” Photo by John LambOn the other hand, Jayde Mitchell has a beautiful, well-trained
voice and croons his numbers with skill as cool Sky Masterson – especially “I’ll
Know” and “My Time of Day,” but doesn’t exhibit enough swagger as the debonair mobster.
 

Perky Angela Bubash, who smiles broadly on stage in every Stray
Dog Theatre musical she’s been in, appears to be playing against type as the
uptight Sarah Brown, a prim and proper spiritually-guided woman who questions
her ability to convert sinners to saints and then gets mixed up falling in love
with Sky. It’s a tough character to warm up to anyway – stiff and unyielding
until she drinks rum in Havana and softens to the charismatic bad boy, but Bubash’s
vocal range doesn’t always suit the demanding role, as displayed in “I’ve Never
Been in Love Before.”
It doesn’t help the romantic storyline that Bubash and Mitchell have zilch
chemistry on stage. She fares better with Womack in “Marry the Man Today.” And
they blend well with their groups. The Save-a-Soul Mission force is led gracefully
by Howard S. Bell as kind and warm-hearted Arvide Abernathy, Sarah’s
grandfather, whose added Irish accent is a plus. His superb rendition of “More
I Cannot Wish You” is touching and one of the highlights.

Jennifer Brown is a confident General Cartwright while Kaitlin Gant as Martha and Alyssa Durbin as Agatha are earnest Mission ‘dolls.’ However, Brown’s blocking in “Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat” obscures others from view.

Elizabeth Semko, Alyssa Wolf, Molly Marie Meyer and Kayla
Dressman are in sync and sparkle as the fizzy Hot Box Girls. Chris Moore is the
agitated Lt. Brannigan.

“Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat” showstopper. Photo by John LambThe entire ensemble hits it out of the park with “Sit Down,
You’re Rockin’ the Boat,” so that “The Happy Ending” seems just a perfunctory wrap-up,
but the musical is a jolly good time.

The large band of 11 talented musicians executed the grand
score in style and kept a lively tempo throughout, with fine work by music
director Jennifer Buchheit on piano; Joe Akers and Ron Foster on trumpet; Lea
Gerdes, Joseph Hendricks and Ian Hayden on reeds; Mallory Golden on violin, P.
Tom Hanson on trombone, Michaela Kuba on cello, M. Joshua Ryan on bass and Joe
Winters on percussion.

While it’s a space crunch because of logistics, Josh Smith’s scenic design made the cityscape tall in re-imagining Times Square on that small stage while lighting designer Tyler Duenow focused on bright lights for the city that never sleeps. Costume designer Lauren Smith captured the era well. Audio Engineer Jane Wilson’s sound was smooth.

This upbeat musical stands the test of time, and SDT has made it a refreshing summer punch. Sit back, let the world go by, and enjoy!

Stray Dog Theatre presents “Guys and Dolls” Aug. 8 – 24, with performances Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. at the Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee Avenue, St. Louis 63104. Special matinee at 2 p.m. on Sunday, Aug. 18 and added evening performance on Wednesday, Aug. 21 at 8 p.m. Many shows are sold out or near sell-out, so visit the website at www.straydogtheatre.org or call 314-865-1995 for tickets or more information.

Full disclosure: the reviewer has directed two community theater productions of “Guys and Dolls,” in 1992 and 2011.

Photo by John Lamb