you glance at South Park Theatre's 2008 season, most of
it will look like familiar community-theater fare:
Harvey, A Tuna Christmas and something called Golf: The
Musical. Across the country, these very same shows
are slated for thousands of suburban theaters. But if
the plays enlist a new batch of high school drama students,
and they keep grandparents happy, why change a thing?
Art, by Yasmina Raza, is a different story. It's
a comedy without obvious punch lines. The characters
discuss modernism and friendship. They are French, but
unlike most Frenchmen of community theater, they wear neither
twirled mustaches nor berets. For all its cerebral
discussions, Art is a very realistic piece. It is,
compared to The Nerd and Anna's Brooklyn Promise,
a transcendent experience.
At the center of Art is a ridiculous painting--white
paint dabbed on a white canvas. Really a non-painting,
but Serge, an amateur collector, splurges on it, for the hefty
sum of 200,000 francs. Then he invites his friend Marc
over to admire it. But Marc (perhaps even "friend" is a
strong word) laughs at the featureless canvas, Serge is
insulted, and they begin a downward spiral of rhetorical
This would be a talking-heads drama if not for Ivan, their
neurotic friend, who becomes a reluctant diplomat during their
spats. Here, Ivan is played by Andy Cornelius, who is an
expert at comical fretting. Ivan is the clown, but he's
also the play's necessary third dimension, and Cornelius
squeezes laughter and insight out of every worried glance.
This is not an easy script, but director Demetria Marsh
understands her material well. As Serge and Marc, Rob
Gorman and Jay Smith have mastered the European snub, calmly
affronting each other with crueler and crueler observations.
In the end, the Art trio is revealed for what they are:
middle-aged, middle-class middlemen, trying to improve
themselves with silly paintings and superior attitudes, too
stubborn and arrogant to feel anything real. We hear
them argue about "concept art" versus "motel paintings," but
the real topic is their humanity, their means of perceiving
South Park Theatre has taken a risk and reaped some great
rewards; themes like these do not exist in Nunsense II.
This Art is, in fact, true to its name.