(Review) – Art – First Presbyterian Theater

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Raise your hand if you’ve committed the electronic act of unfollowing an acquaintance on a social media platform. What about subtweeting as a method of coping with someone else’s post? How about severing ties with a former classmate or coworker by deploying options such as unfriending…or, applying the more permanent form of digital removal: the high-octane capital-B Block? Though French playwright Yasmina Reza’s highly acclaimed script debuted over twenty-five years ago–well over a decade prior to the birth of social media–Art has modern-day applications and pushes viewers to examine the nature and existence of our interpersonal relationships. Thus, its inclusion in the calendar at First Presbyterian Theater is welcomed and clearly warranted, given our shifting attention concerning the public forums that social media has amplified. Director Thom Hofrichter identifies Christopher Hampton’s translation of Reza’s play as “hysterical” but also a “harbinger of the times,” suggesting that recent political tension has led many to reevaluate friendships and acquaintances, especially if both parties have drastically conflicting ideas and beliefs.

The play does involve art–focusing on the recent purchase of a controversial painting by one of the three adult male friends featured throughout the plot. The painting, though, is quickly established as a vehicle to lead viewers to grapple with the intangible issue of true friendship. The artwork’s significance and value is not equally shared by all three, which spawns the disagreement and deep-rooted discourse concerning their pasts and their observations of one another. 

Serge, the purchaser of the painting, is performed by Aaron Robertson, and Marc, Serge’s longtime friend, is played by Aaron Mann. Robertson captures the swelling hopefulness that acquiring this painting will elevate him within some circles, though Mann counters that pride in a convincingly dismissive manner. As the rapid-fire dialogue pushes their conversation forward, Robertson and Mann successfully waver the strength of their characters’ friendship through cutting dialogue and physically affected performances. Both exemplify a realistic mixture of maturity and pettiness with which most adults can likely relate, and they quickly rope the audience into their internal and external struggle with how one another has changed over the course of their years as friends. 

Nol Beckley plays Ivan, the final member of the friendship trio. As an anxious and vividly stressed man, Beckley demonstrates the pressure of finding meaning with his new career as well as being inundated by the demands and requests of various family members his upcoming wedding has created. Ivan is the type of friend whose non-confrontational complacency has evolved as counterproductive and predictable, and he has become a running joke among Marc and Serge as they ultimately dehumanize him as a weapon within their own verbal battle. Beckley’s Ivan wrestles over his own inability to be assertive, and the consequences of his refusal to remain as the trio’s punching bag dazzlingly shifts the action of the play. 

The culminating showdown among these three creates for audiences an opportunity to consider the basis for all relationships. Presumably, these three men met and began a kinship as individuals who identified a shared quality with one another, which becomes an effective universal connection for any viewer. However, as they have aged, they may have noticed that the chumminess of their conversations has been replaced by a much more personal and irritable one. This increase in hostility, too, becomes the foundation of the evocative power these performances offer. The brittle state of their friendship displayed through these performances–as grown men who had simply planned for a relaxing evening together–becomes obvious through the vibrant dialogue and comical asides. These asides shared with the audience and not the characters on stage, are a longstanding theatrical device to reveal thoughts not meant for the ears of other characters. Nowadays, we might as well nickname them “theatrical subtweets.”

Some may argue that social media has announced itself as a common and convenient supplement to face-to-face interaction, but others may warn against its increasing trajectory of use, believing that the ease with which unfollowing, unfriending, or blocking carries will escalate our collective divisiveness and dissociation. Because all phone usage is disallowed during performances at FPT, audience members can ponder these ideas as well as enjoy the opportunity to detoxify from social media activity for about eighty-five minutes. 

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