LENOX — Is the price of a painting worth the cost of a friendship? It’s a question that hangs in the open air of Shakespeare & Company’s beautifully redesigned Roman Garden Theatre where Yasmina Reza’s “Art” is being given thoughtful treatment.
The bench seating around three sides of an expansive essentially thrust stage in the Roman Garden has been replaced by comfortable canvas-style seats that surround, still on three sides, a playing area that is at once surprisingly intimate and, at the same time, expansive enough to handle the explosions that erupt over the course of the production’s intermissionless 90 or so minutes.
Set designer Patrick Brennan has created an inviting, almost Edenic lawn/garden on property located, for the purposes of director Christopher V. Edwards’ production, somewhere in the Berkshires.
“Art” focuses on the relationship among three men — Marc (“ranney”), an aeronautical engineer; Yvan (Lawrence L. James), who is transitioning from a career in textiles to a new job as sales agent for a wholesale stationery business owned by the uncle of his fiance; and Serge (Michael F. Toomey), a dermatologist whose purchase of a painting — a 5-by-4 canvas, “white.” The background is white,” Marc says in “Art’s” opening lines, “and if you screw up your eyes, you can make out some fine white diagonal lines.”
Serge is keen on art, Marc says, slightly emphasizing “keen” as if to suggest there may be a bit of the diletante in Serge. This time, however, Serge has pushed his limits. Though he is, as Marc says, “comfortably off but … hardly rolling in money,” Serge has gone ahead and spent an exorbitant sum on this painting by an artist, Antrios, who may be more fashionably trendy than genuinely accomplished. Marc cannot believe that Serge would pay the money he paid for what Marc sees as essentially “sh—.”
And Yvan — accommodating, desperately in need of this friendship at a time when his personal life is being turned upside down — tries to stay in the middle; indicating approval to Serge, something a bit less to Marc.
Serge’s purchase exposes the fault lines in a relationship among these three that has lasted 15 years.
As the arguments go back and forth; as the fractures, particularly between Marc and Serge, expand; as the heated discussions turn deeply personal, it becomes clear that Serge’s purchase of the Antrios signals for Marc a sea-change in the way Serge regards him; that his role in their friendship has shifted and not without consequence.
Marc sees the canvas as being white. “Objectively speaking,” Serge says, “it’s not white. It has a white background, with a whole range of greys. There’s even some red in it. … I wouldn’t like it if it was white. Marc thinks it’s white … that’s his limit.”
How a work of art is seen becomes emblematic of a broader question of how we each see the world; the people around us; how we see ourselves and others within the context of our various relationships? How do we define ourselves?
At one point, Yvan quotes to Marc and Serge and observation made by his therapist that in its seemingly convoluted logic actually gets to the heart of matter — the authenticity of how much we define ourselves; whether in that process we remain true to our own perception of ourselves or if we allow others to define who we are.
What is our individual responsibility in the relationships we form as friends? What is the inherent value of that relationship and what must we do, how far should one go to maintain, preserve, redefine that friendship as we, and the times, change?
This conflict is the last thing Yvan needs. He needs Serge and Marc to be at his wedding, stand up for him.
It doesn’t help that wedding plans are on the edge of ruin over a territorial battle between Yvan’s fiance’s step-mother and his nown step-mother, both of whom want their names on the wedding invitation. Yvan unloads his dilemma in a dazzling, breathless, frenetic outpouring, rendered perfectly wonderfully by James.
Overall, the performances by “ranney,” Toomey and James are adept and skillful. Edwards’ direction is smooth, purposeful and steady, although the overall pace sags a bit midway through.
Sound designer Brendan F. Doyle provides an evocative, if at times intrusive, jazz complement.
Geese occasionally quack and there is a faint but distracting low, deep, throbbing underscoring to a couple scenes early in the performance.
There is a casual, relaxed look and feel to Stella Giuletta Schwartz’s costuming, as if these three were getting ready for a day of golf.
Not an unpleasant way to spend 90 minutes or so on a summer afternoon in the Berkshires.