It's easy to snicker at some works of modern art, and perhaps too easy when the painting in question is a high-priced all-white canvas — though in Yasmina Reza's Art, the painter's new owner, Serge, claims to discern hints of other colors and diagonal lines. Marc draws a blank on those alleged subtleties, and he's quite confrontational about it. Yvan is caught in the middle, and for as long as possible he tries to maintain sympathy for both points of view without having to take a side.
Reza's play debuted in Paris in 1994 and had a Tony Award-winning run in New York. Perhaps it has some French sensibilities that are lost in translation, but the three men are extremely contentious about their aesthetic tastes, or at least Marc and Serge are. The battle of traditionalism versus modernism escalates to sharp personal assaults, and the withering attacks aimed at each other's personalities, significant others and psychological tics threaten to obliterate all traces of their friendship. Perhaps it's supposed to be a farcical element that the play so viciously ridicules moderation and civility as being for the spineless and feeble-minded. Only some of that is played for humor by director Kate Kuen.
The NOLA Project is making sure no two audiences see the same work. Different combinations of six actors will fill the three roles during the show's run in the New Orleans Museum of Art's Where Y'Art series. The performance I saw featured a soft-spoken Michael Aaron Santos as the wealthy and pretentious Serge. NOLA Project artistic director A.J. Allegra played the smug and combative Marc, who prefers classical works. James Bartelle played the amicable but overly accommodating Yvan, who also is caught between his fiancee, her family and his family on the eve of their wedding. Yvan's humiliation and distress about the politics of whether their stepmothers should both be listed on the wedding invitation was an exquisitely long and hilarious meltdown. But it was just a prelude to the soul-crushing revelations and judgments soon to follow, some of which is painfully funny as the men share what they really think of their friends.
The conflict reaches a point of absurdity, however, and one wonders what philosophical point justifies the collateral damage. Do they really have a relationship worth preserving if they can't tolerate each others' values or tastes? Should art open a discussion or send viewers to their bunkers to protect their ideas in the sanctity of solitude? The conflict is entertaining if a bit overheated. Yvan is seeing a psychologist, and it's tempting to think the production would find more humor in the anxieties of wanting friends' approval than just assaulting their beliefs. — Will Coviello
Thru. Aug. 28
8 p.m. Friday, 3 p.m. Sunday
New Orleans Museum of Art, Stern Auditorium, 1 Collins C. Diboll Circle, 658-4100; www.noma.org
Tickets $16 general admission, $8 NOMA members/university students