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Review: Reza’s ‘Art’ loses little of its bite in new Soulpepper remount (Includes first-hand account)

An early international hit for the French playwright, known for her razor-sharp ridicule of bourgeois urbanites and their values, ‘Art’ has become a modern classic – and the Soulpepper Theatre Company specializes in reinvigorating classics. This remount, which opened on Thursday, isn’t as good as Canadian Stage’s memorable 2010 production with Colin Mochrie, but it succeeds on its own modest terms, thanks to a dependable cast with Soulpepper veterans Diego Matamoros and Oliver Dennis.

Directed by Philip Akin and based on the well-worn Christopher Hampton translation, ‘Art’ is a simple story that could easily be an episode of Frasier. Art lover Serge (Matamoros) has just paid a fortune for a five-by-four-foot painting that consists of a white background and virtually nothing else. (If you look carefully, you can see a grey diagonal line too.) His old buddy Marc (Dennis) laughs and tells him to his face that the painting is “s—t.” Their mutual friend Yvan (Huse Madhavji, making his Soulpepper debut) neither likes nor hates the painting and won’t fully commit to either side; he’s too stressed about his upcoming wedding, which his high-maintenance fiancée is complicating.

This kind of disagreement wouldn’t harm most friend groups, but in Reza’s comic vision, tensions escalate and suppressed truths are thrust to the surface as the three men wonder why they still hang out with each other. Friendly observations like “You’ve lost your sense of humour” soon turn into bitter accusations and weapons, and good-natured ribbing sinks into hostility. It culminates in a physical fight that Akin directs to look hilariously inept (as aging, elitist art fanatics would probably fight) and a shocking act that plays as a broad parody of the old Chekhov gun rule.

Akin chooses a simple, no-frills approach to the play, with a minimalist set by Gillian Gallow, featuring a white back wall, a white couch and two black chairs. This is probably a wise decision, as the strengths of this production lie in Reza’s witty, often comically repetitive dialogue and in the performances. Matamoros’ Serge is foolish and sympathetic at once, giddy and hyper as he paces around his apartment, trying to find the right “angle” from which Marc should view the painting. He comes off less stubborn or defensive than confident of his decision, even insisting he sees other colours on the canvas. As Marc, whose art tastes stop at the classics, Dennis conveys both cynicism and compassion – laying his hand on Serge’s shoulder in an attempt to be conciliatory, yet later boasting, “The older I get, the more offensive I hope to become.” He even gets physically ill in response to his friend’s love of the painting.

Madhavji, younger than the other two, betrays less stage experience than his castmates have, but comes off well. His Yvan is convincing as a third wheel in the group, easygoing to a fault, a bit of a coward and pushover who just wants to avoid drama. His lengthy monologue about his wedding problems doesn’t come anywhere near the frenetic, hysterical pace that Evan Buliung reached in the CanStage version, but it still expresses the character’s needy frustration. (Marc describes Yvan as a “tolerant” person, which is “the worst thing you can be in a relationship.”)

The stripped-down simplicity and universal humour of ‘Art’ are likely reasons why it travels so well across borders and languages; it has been staged in dozens of countries and played for 600 performances on Broadway. Akin makes a few minor changes to the Hampton translation to make it less British and more Canadian, eliminating the word “bloke” and changing the expression “daub” to “motel art”. Oddly, the painting price of “200,000 francs” – roughly $45,000 Canadian, pre-Euro – is left untouched, which adds an unnecessary distance; surely Akin could have done a little math to complete the translation into 2019 Toronto-ese?

Soulpepper’s ‘Art’ is no more or less than it needs to be: a very funny and insightful comedy that savages the notion of male bonding as well as it mocks artistic pretension. There’s definitely more than a white rectangle going on here.

‘Art’ runs at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts until September 1.

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