The Americanization of ‘art’

Sometimes there are plays—especially well-crafted comedies—that are deliberately created to mess with your head. “art,” due to open the Malibu Stage Company’s 2012-2013 season Sunday, is such a creature. The fact that the title, “art,” is always depicted in lower cases (an ironic gesture of humility only e.e. cummings would appreciate), acts as a warning: Don’t take this offering for granted. It will be nothing you expected, least of all typical theatre fare. It’s much more than that.

Essentially “art” deals with two central themes. The first asks the questions: What is art, and who has the right to determine its value? The second applies the same challenges to friendship: What is true friendship and how does one measure it? Both issues get tested in “art” in ways that both surprise and delight audiences with untoward challenges to the play’s three principles—Serge, Marc, and Yvan—friends for decades whose familiarity and personal history takes on almost marital proportions of both intimate consideration and jovial contempt.

In a purely linear context, “art” is about three men whose eroding 15-year friendship reaches critical mass when Serge spends $40,000 dollars on a white painting with three white lines through the middle of an otherwise blind-embossed canvas. Ironically entitled “Not White” by noted artist Mikhail Antrios, the painting and the cost of it soon become flashpoints among the men, who somehow manage to be sucked into the controversy for reasons none of them can explain.

Originally penned in French by Yasmina Reza and performed in Paris in 1994, “art” almost immediately went through a rigid English language translation by Christopher Hampton, and since that time has seen more than 600 productions around the world, including the 2003 Tony Award-winning Broadway hit starring theatrical lions Victor Garber, Alan Alda and Alfred Molina.

Small wonder that Rick Johnson and the Malibu Stage Company wanted to take their chances and virtually get in line to secure the very tough regional rights to this extremely popular play. In fact, it was a process that took nearly two years and some “high level” leveraging to secure. And yet it is one that, all agree, was well worth the effort.

“Comedy can be a tricky thing,” observes “art” co-producer and co-star Brian Pietro. “If the play you’re doing was originally written and staged in another language, you can’t play it for laughs alone (because sometimes they simply don’t translate). Instead, you have to play it for the humanity. That’s the unique quality of ‘art’ as a dramatic vehicle. Because it is the humanity and the friendship that ultimately override everything else.”

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Not surprising then that it was both friendship and professional respect that helped get “art” cast—not through any traditional casting and “call-backs,” but through a series of spaghetti dinners and table readings that drew gifted Malibu Stage Company veterans Oscar Best and Will Carney, along with Pietro, by the Laws of Attraction to fill in the other two leads.

“More than anything, rather than the actors vying for the roles, the roles just kind of selected the actors,” observes first time director Nathalie Blossom. Blossom, a New York-trained actress noted for her comic chops and signature performances in such hits as Peter Quilter’s “Glorious,” the Pulitzer-winning “Shadowbox” and Arthur Miller’s “Ride Down Mount Morgan,” lends a woman’s point of view to this testosterone-driven tour de force and literary classic.

“Thanks to Nathalie’s gentle genius and comedic stewardship, the performances take on a kind of verbal swagger and organic choreography that varies from performance to performance,” Pietro notes. “After several rehearsals, we also had to realize that a play originally penned in French and secondarily staged in the West End of London needed a touch of cultural assimilation toward the American way of humor. That meant turning a few phrases that might literally get ‘lost in translation’ into something Americans would say, do and react to. So we Americanized it just bit. We did it with a strict sense of integrity toward the author’s original intent. And we know Yasmina would approve.”

In its way, “art” has something of a “Day for Night” quality about it. Its subtext often draws an almost organic kind of comic spontaneity among the actors going through it that changes from performance to performance. For that reason, “art” is something that promises a new adventure for anyone willing to see the play a second time.

For tickets visit brownpapertickets.com or call 310.589.1998 and leave a message. This is the first of four productions in the theater’s 2012-2013 season. Reserved seating is available for $25 a seat. Season tickets are also available, as are various discounts for seniors, military personnel, county firefighters, lifeguards, sheriffs as well as Malibu students and teachers. Group and club discount rates are available. Visit artatmalibustage.com.

13StarsManager
13StarsManagerhttps://malibutimes.com
The Malibu Times is the first newspaper in Malibu, serving the community since 1946.

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