THERE ARE TWO kinds of French people: those with a highly developed sense of the absurd, and those few without. The latter group consists mainly of literary and cultural theorists. Through national solidarity, though, they rarely suffer the majority's mockery.
Playwright Yasmina Reza, however, skewers her fellow French intellectuals with aplomb in her 1995 comedy Art, which won just about every American theatrical award when it played Broadway in 1998. Now it's hit Tucson in a crackling Arizona Theatre Company production.
Art isn't really about the intelligentsia, though; it dissects the suspect motives of anyone who subjects friendship to certain terms and conditions.
Set in contemporary Paris, the story begins when Serge buys a painting. It's a 1970s painting by a fashionable artist: thin white diagonal stripes against a white background. Serge thinks it's fascinating; his longtime pal Marc thinks it's shit, and says so with a derisive laugh.
The two enlist the opinion of a third buddy, Yvan. The problem is that Yvan honestly has no opinion of his own. He has other things to worry about, like his impending marriage, and says whatever it takes to keep his friendships purring along.
But those friendships soon start to hiss and snarl. Art begins as a witty debate on aesthetics, but quickly turns from how people relate to canvas to how they relate to each other.
Each man has always played a specific part in this three-sided friendship, and Marc, who fancies himself the dominant force, is shattered when Serge and Yvan begin to take on new roles. Suddenly the friendship, which probably used to evoke the eerily empty angles of a deChirico cityscape, now splatters into the colorful chaos of Jackson Pollock.
Reza draws most of her humor from character rather than one-liners, although her characters are capable of superb wisecracks. (Leave it to the French to get laughs out of the term "deconstruction.") She also delights in paradox ("the more you try to be a man out of your time, the more you are a man of your time") and circuitously phrased common sense ("If I am who I am because you are who you are, then I'm not who I am").
Art might just as well have been called Identity, if Milan Kundera hadn't recently snagged that title. Or "art" may not refer to painting so much as the art of something or other, as in Sun-tse's Art of War. The ancient Chinese master's stratagem "Know yourself, know your enemy" is certainly relevant here; things fall apart when Marc, Serge and Yvan realize they don't know each other so well anymore. How well each knows himself isn't so certain, either.
Every stroke of ATC's production is applied with sureness and flair, starting with the work of the cast. ATC newcomer Frank Corrado precisely hits the target as the pompous, manipulative anti-modernist Marc, who gradually loses his grip as he loses his influence on his friends. David Pichette (most memorable as the lunatic Renfield in Dracula) is a marvelously sardonic Serge, and Bob Sorenson delivers yet another of his finely judged comic performances as the perpetually nonplused Yvan.
In the more than 25 productions David Ira Goldstein has directed for ATC, he's generally been most successful with serious shows; in comedy, he often strains too hard for guffaws. Not so in Art; Goldstein keeps everything well paced and on the mark, sometimes pushing Corrado right up to the brink of hamminess without kicking him over the edge.
Even the actors' habit of addressing the audience comes off without artificiality for once. At these moments, lighting designer Tracy Odishaw tends to trap the speaker in a rectangular spotlight, as if he were emerging from his own white canvas on the floor.
Scenic designer William Forrester understands exactly what this play is about. The action moves from one character's apartment to another's, but all three living spaces are identical--spare, white, with the same four pieces of conflicting furniture (two traditional items and two modernist chairs). The apartments are differentiated only by the painting on the wall: a faux-Flemish landscape for Marc, one of those motel atrocities for Yvan, and nothing for Serge, who initially props his new acquisition on a chair, as if not expecting it to stay long.
Indeed, artistic fashion is a fleeting thing, but Yasmina Reza's comic study of unstill lives is a museum-quality work.
Arizona Theatre Company presents Art Wednesdays through Saturdays through September 30 at the Temple of Music and Art, 330 S. Scott Ave. Admission ranges from $22 to $35, with half-price rush tickets available 30 minutes before curtain. For information, call 622-2823.