LENOX — Is a 5-foot-by-4-foot white canvas with a few barely discernible fine white diagonal lines painted against a white background worth not only the price of the purchase, but also the long-standing friendship that purchase threatens to destroy?
That question frames “Art,” a three-character comedy by Yasmina Reza that was a huge success in Paris, where it had its world premiere in 1994; in London, where Christopher Hampton’s translation premiered in 1996 in a production that co-starred Tom Courtenay, Albert Finney and Ken Stott; and New York, where Hampton’s translation made its Broadway bow in 1998 with Alan Alda, Victor Garber and Alfred Molina.
Since then, “Art” has been widely produced in regional theaters around the country. Now, it’s Shakespeare & Company’s turn. The comedy begins performances this weekend in the outdoor Roman Garden Theatre, where it is scheduled to run afternoons through Aug. 22.
Christopher V. Edwards is directing a cast featuring Shakespeare & Company veteran Michael F. Toomey, Lawrence L. James and “ranney.”
Toomey plays Serge, a reasonably successful dermatologist whose purchase of this white canvas by a fashionable 1970s artist puts him at distinct odds with Marc (“ranney”), an aeronautical engineer whom he’s known for 15 years. Marc takes an instant dislike to the painting and is not shy about expressing his distaste. Caught in the middle is the well-intentioned Yvan (James), who plays neutral middle man, trying to salvage a friendship that has become his lifeline.
“It feels like Yvan is the little brother in the group,” James said during a joint interview with his director and cast mates at Shakespeare & Company’s Tina Packer Playhouse. “He is sort of the optimist. He sees the others for who they are.
“We tend to define ourselves by the company we keep, so, Yvan will go any way the wind blows. He needs this relationship [with Serge and Marc] to work.”
Marc describes Yvan at one point as “a very tolerant bloke.”
“Ranney” suggested that if Serge is the heart of this relationship, “Yvan is the soul.”
Edwards and Shakespeare & Company artistic director Allyn Burrows had another play in mind when they met to discuss Edwards’ participation in a 2021 season that, mindful of COVID-19 safeguards, would be produced outdoors. Edwards is artistic director of Actors Shakespeare Project in Boston, which Burrows co-founded in 2004. He was artistic director for 10 years, until he left in 2016 to become artistic director of Shakespeare & Company.
“We were looking at another play, but it didn’t feel right coming out of COVID and this social justice moment,” Edwards said.
It was not long after that Burrows came back to Edwards with the thought of doing something lighter, a comedy.
“That felt right, coming back to a world after a year indoors,” Edwards said.
Edwards was “pleasantly surprised” when he first saw “Art” back in the 1990s.
“It’s smart, accessible and I wanted to see this play with a cast different than what you might expect,” he said, referring to the fact that two of his three actors are Black.
“This is a play about friendship, how it ebbs and flows [especially among] people with money, [and] what they do with disposable income. In the actual world we live in, race is an issue, but it’s not the only issue.”
“Ranney” sees Marc as a lonely man who has retreated into a life of privacy and moderation. Still, “ranney” said, Marc is proud of the life he has carved for himself and “how that life has shaped his perspective of who they are.”
“Serge is in crisis mode,” Toomey said, referring to developments in his professional and personal life. “He’s trying to fill those empty spaces as he transitions to a minimal life.”
“These guys really do like each other,” “ranney” said. “Their [intense] vulnerability [in front of each other] tells me they have a strong relationship.”
“What the other thinks comes truly, honestly from the heart,” Edwards said. “They are each made responsible for living up to each other’s expectations.”
“Art” unfolds indoors, in the main room of an apartment. Here, the action is outdoors. The question: How will Serge’s painting register in the Roman Garden setting?
“Here, we have Serge bringing this painting outside to a garden. I am wrapping my head around why this is OK for Serge to do,” Toomey said. “It feels like this guy is carrying this painting around from room to room because he doesn’t know where to put it.”
Neither James nor “ranney” is certain what to expect. They’ve been rehearsing outdoors, and if it rains, the performance will, in all likelihood, be moved indoors to the nearby Tina Packer Playhouse. Still, “ranney” said, “I’m concerned how being outdoors will affect our pacing, physical intimacy; how we paint the play’s colors.”
Clearly, it’s worth the effort. The project has special meaning for the actors.
“This is about ”what it means to come back into community after all this time spent away and how this affects what we do,” Toomey said.
He hopes audiences will be provoked; that they will “go off and talk with each other about the nature of art and relationships.”
“I hope people will take away what things are worth fighting for; the value of relationships. I hope they see themselves in it,” James said.
“Sometimes a cookie is just a cookie,” “ranney” said with a hearty laugh. “I just want audiences to enjoy this comedy and what it says to all of us about the value of relationships.”
“This could all be gone in a flash,” Edwards added.