In Art, playwright Yasmina Reza uses theater to explore how powerfully we defend our fears and rationalizations.
Art by Yasmina Reza. Translated by Christopher Hampton. Directed by Antonio Ocampo-Guzman. Staged by New Repertory Theatre at the Arsenal Center for the Arts, Watertown, MA, through February 5.
By Tim Jackson.
Yasmina Reza’s first international success, Art, was a huge hit on Broadway in 1998, and the script is now receiving a lively production via The New Repertory Theater.
While Reza’s play satirizes middle-class values, it also looks at how contemporary male friendship can become territorial. The conflict concerns an art enthusiast Serge (Robert Walsh) who has bought an expensive, nearly all-white painting, much to the dismay of his two old friends Marc and Yvan. Discussion over the meaning, purpose, and value of the pricey canvas quickly escalates to increasingly harsh judgments of character. Marc (Robert Pemberton) considers the purchase of such a painting, which cost 200,000 francs, a personal affront. Yvan (Robert Lockwood), on the other hand, recently engaged and poised to enter the stationary business working for his father-in-law, responds to Marc’s criticism with a typical half answer—“If it makes him happy . . . if he can afford it.” The tussle begins:
Serge: If it makes him happy. What’s that supposed to mean? What kind of philosophy is that, if it makes him happy?
Marc: As long as he’s not doing harm to anyone else . . .
Yvan: But it is, it is doing harm to me. I’m disturbed, more than that I’m hurt, yes I am.
In Reza’s play God of Carnage, a playground fight between two children ignites an increasingly bitter battle between two couples. In Art, a white painting provokes questions about the value of friendship. Art becomes a mirror, not just for taste or to declare whether one “likes” something or not but for comparing and contrasting attitudes about everything from personal relationships and cultural attitudes to politics. The painting is a virtual tabula rasa onto which Serge, Yvan, and Marc project their anxieties about the values and choices they have made in their middle years. As she does so well, Reza uses theater to explore how powerfully we defend our fears and rationalizations.
I interviewed New Rep director Antonio Ocampo-Guzman about Reza’s play and how he went about bringing it to the stage.
Arts Fuse: Art the play, like the white painting that Serge purchases, is very much open to interpretation.
Ocampo-Guzman: The audience will interpret each character in many ways.
AF: I know that you are teacher. Do you find that your students see this play differently than older adults?
Ocampo-Guzman: I have asked my students—how many friends have you had for more than 15 years? If you’re only 18, I’m not sure you will have as much to reflect on. In that way, it may be more of a play for adults.
AF: Adults also have the distance to see how friends have changed over time.
Ocampo-Guzman: Yes—because I think friendship is very different as we grow older. So if you’re a kid at a local college, your friendships are about having people to connect with and not feeling lonely while in school. Friendships as we grow older become almost like family without the biological ties, which makes it fantastic but also difficult.
AF: It seems in Art there is a certain need, especially from Marc, to control his perception of these friends. He has a wonderful line: “You should never leave your friends unchaperoned.”
Ocampo-Guzman: We discovered that Marc is really very narcissistic. He has no idea what kind of world he is going into, so he cannot control or understand it. And Serge for the last 15 years has been in a friendship with a man who is a narcissistic pain in the butt. It’s interesting; I have people whose lives are very close to me, and all of a sudden something changes and I see them differently. Or they see me differently. And even though there’s not a fight or big dramatic falling out, there is suddenly a shift in the friendship. We can try to go back to seeing each other as before, but it’s changed and it’s different. That’s why this play is closer to a tragedy than a comedy. It’s very sad to see the truth for what it is.
AF: It’s a satire but with a razor’s edge.
Ocampo-Guzman: I’ve read about how Reza and Christopher Hampton [her collaborator in the English translation] have had very sophisticated fights about the play. When she saw what he had done in London, where it was a huge success and hailed as being so funny, she turned around and asked, “What the hell have you done with my play?” I guess different cultures receive it differently. I think the script has an incredibly European sensibility. In this country, we don’t have these kind of relationships between men, except possibly in Seinfeld and Fraser, which are farces.
AF: I sometimes tell my students it would be interesting to see a bar fight over art rather than sports or politics.
Ocampo-Guzman: Ha ha—yes, I don’t really want them to get into fights but at least into really interesting arguments. At one point in the play, the characters are having a discussion and suddenly Yvon starts to leave and Serge says, “You’re not going to take offense now? If you leave now you’re giving into Marc.” There’s something very delightful about having an argument. Look at what’s going on and don’t turn away from those things.
AF: Are there other differences in the way they communicate based on translations?
Ocampo-Guzman: We use the American translation, but we do refer to the French version. The French version is interesting in that they speak via a very sophisticated, urban French slang in which an expression can mean three different things depending on how you say it.
AF: Where do you start as a director—directly with the text?
Ocampo-Guzman: Yes, it’s about the text, but it is also about the energy of the relationships, about the status of the relationships. There are moves that happen instinctively if you’re really paying attention to what’s being said. If you are aware and attuned to what the power struggle is, the body will instinctively react. You can’t really block those things because it also may change over time. So as I direct, I talk a lot about winning points and losing points. We win a point and we’re happy that we won the point. That might bring you to your feet to celebrate the fact you won the point or something might make sit you down in a very ambiguous way.
For example, in the play one character wins a point and celebrates by sitting on this big sofa by himself. But sometimes you will win a point, but it will cost you something. You have won, but it hurt a little. Or perhaps we lose by acquiescing to the other person, in which case perhaps we wouldn’t look at them—we turn our head away from them. Those kinds of things are what I’m very interested in—where the actor is paying attention to what’s happening and being impulsive—night to night that might even change.
AF: Status shifts coming through the use of language.
Ocampo-Guzman: Of course. The play itself is a comedy of wit. Unfortunately, I think that’s a word that is misused now. We think of wit only as “humor.” But I see wit more as “mental agility,” as in the plays of Harold Pinter or even Shakespeare. It’s about using rhetoric in ways that will get your point across regardless of what you are feeling. It’s the choice of words. For example, Marc has a habitual pattern in which he reasons everything out by repeating it. You say something and he repeats it. By repeating what you said he thinks he is helping you understand it. Those things for me are wit.
AF: The writing often reminds me of Pinter. Although with him there are those celebrated silences and subliminal threats.
Ocampo-Guzman: Yes, and that’s why I wanted to play with the rhythm. Although there’s a lot of parts in the play that goes really, really fast, we knew that there had to be moments of great silence. One of my favorite moments in the play is at the very end, after Yvan’s catharsis.
I’ve asked them to extend the silence as much as possible, so you can hear the pit of the olive being thrown onto the plate. I get off on little things like that, but an argument does get to the point where you can’t say anything else. The silence becomes interesting. There are a lot of moments where there is opportunity for stillness. And silence. In this way Reza is rendering a kind of homage to Pinter. There are Pinter pauses to be had.
AF: Do you think that Serge, with his money and his appreciation for the art, is more comfortable with ambiguity and more comfortable with himself.
Ocampo-Guzman: Yes and no. I think what’s interesting about Serge is that even though he has money, it’s not easy for him to buy this painting. That’s one thing. Another is that there’s always a fear that he’s made a huge mistake and that he’s made a fool of himself. What I like about the character of Serge is that he is impulsive. That’s something that Bob [Lockwood] and I played with a lot. To buy this painting was impulsive—it was not easy for him to do it.
Whereas for Marc, it’s always about reason and having a clear intellectual understanding about what’s going on. So he has to get on Serge for making a fool of himself. But Yvan wants to be everything to everybody. I think he is the most interesting character of them all. It’s also interesting that we don’t get the back story about how they became friends, where they became friends, or who their friends were, or anything like that.
AF: Is Serge’s impulsiveness a kind of courage?
Ocampo-Guzman: Of course, and when you do courageous things there is always the possibility that you have made a huge mistake.
AF: Does this make Yvan less courageous because he’s about to enter a very common life of marriage and a job working for his father-in-law?
Ocampo-Guzman: But he’s also at a moment in his life where he is about to get married and he’s never had a relationship before. He’s had a chaotic life. He’s both courageous and reckless at the same time. One of the things about this play that we said at the beginning of our conversation is that we can see them in so many different ways from so many different angles.
AF: What do you make of the Paul Valery reference in the play?
Ocampo-Guzman: What I love about the moment when they bring up Paul Valery is that Valery specialized in creating aphorisms, like Oscar Wilde. In that scene, Serge says, ‘’Well, you know what Paul Valery says,’’ and Marc interrupts him and says, “Don’t quote Paul Valery to me.” We never get to hear what he has to say, which I personally find very funny.
AF: Another open end.
Ocampo-Guzman: I think that having a white painting in some ways represents some kind of mirror into which you can project whatever you want. I think anybody could find themselves reflected in each of these guys at different places and different moments—and embarrassed by that, because sometimes they’re not very nice people.
In one of his asides to the audience, Serge says, “whatever you do please don’t be pleasant.” I think that is what gets us into trouble—this desire to be pleasant and to be civilized and to be kind. I think Reza goes even further in God of Carnage in terms of showing how savage we can be. I think that Art is more sophisticated. But in both plays characters get into trouble when they don’t really say what they want to say.