"Art" by Yasmina Reza at Sixth Street Playhouse, Santa Rosa CA

“Art” at Sixth Street Playhouse Studio Theater
By Yasmina Reza, translation by Christopher Hampton

Co-produced with the Napa Valley College Repertory Theater

Reviewed by Suzanne and Greg Angeo

Photo by Raina Chazankin - from left: Tim Kniffin, Tim Setzer, Dodds Delzell

What is the purpose of art? Many volumes have been written and hours spent cussing and discussing the subject, and “Art” by French playwright Yasmina Reza at Sixth Street Playhouse offers a side-splitting answer in this engagingly analytical social comedy. It’s like Seinfeld on steroids, and it even includes a clumsy, hilarious brawl for good measure.

We are truly lucky to have Sixth Street, whose good choice it was in selecting this piece to kick off their 2011 lineup. The location, characters and references of “Art” remain in contemporary France, the original setting of the play, which allows us to observe the cross-cultural connections we all have. It was first produced to critical acclaim in Paris in 1995, and when it came to Broadway in 1998, it won the Tony award for Best Play. Since then, it has been performed in over 30 languages.

In just under 90 minutes, “Art” reveals in comic relief how even the best of friends can become over-analytical and hyper-defensive when taste, wisdom or motives are challenged. The slender plotline revolves around the purchase of a rather large, all-white painting by Serge, a stylish Parisian dermatologist and art collector. Thrilled with his new prize, he can’t wait to show it off to his two best buddies, Marc and Yvan. Their reactions to the simple white painting and the resulting war of words are the fulcrum of the story’s blazing satire, and challenge the validity of their friendship and even their own identities. Crackling dialogue by Reza (with translation by Christopher Hampton) draws us into the story from the opening lines.

At Sixth Street, it’s a privilege to watch such a superbly talented cast of three at work. Like the proverbial three-legged stool, if one is weak the whole thing collapses. No danger of that happening here. They are all solidly on the mark. Art aficionado Serge is played with warm and witty sophistication by the incredibly versatile Dodds Delzell. Marc, his somewhat cynical friend, is played with just the right amount of aloof but caustic concern by Tim Kniffin. Tim Setzer plays their friend Yvan, who, in his attempt to mediate their dispute, turns in a truly masterful comic display. Each of these actors knows his stuff. They move with razor’s-edge precision in perfect synch. The way director Jennifer King guides her actors’ movements is brilliant, like a well-choreographed ballet. Choice bits of music and lighting effects serve as punctuation marks for the story as it moves forward.

Reactions to art, from Dadaism to Impressionism, are intensely personal. It’s a transfer of emotion from the artist to one viewer - or a million - who are free to accept or reject, embrace or spurn. Opinions on art have ignited controversies and feuds, but in the end the purpose of art must be to provoke a reaction, and to inspire. Serge’s new painting, and Reza’s delightful play, both serve this purpose well. “Art” at Sixth Street is a fine work of art, indeed.

When: January 7 to January 23, 2011
8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 8 p.m. Thursday, January 20
2 p.m. Sundays and Saturday, January 22
Tickets: $10 to $25
Location: 6th Street Playhouse – Studio Theatre
52 West 6th Street, in Santa Rosa’s historic Railroad Square
Phone: 707-523-4185
Website: www.6thstreetplayhouse.com