Soulpepper’s Art is witty but often feels like upper-middle-class flim-flam

Philip Akin's handsome staging of the 25-year-old play seems fitting for our polarizing times, but some elements are lost in translation


ART by Yasmina Reza (Soulpepper). At the Young Centre for the Performing Arts (50 Tank House). Runs to September 7. $38-$98. soulpepper.ca. See listing. Rating: NNN


We live in polarizing times, with people regularly arguing over everything from the alt right and the environment to bike lanes and women’s roles in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. So in one sense Soulpepper’s revival of Yasmina Reza’s talky, debate-filled play Art – celebrating its 25th anniversary this year – seems fitting. But in 2019, the work also feels like so much upper-middle-class flim-flam. 

On the surface, the play looks at how a piece of art affects the friendship between three straight male Parisians. 

Dermatologist Serge (Diego Matamoros) has paid a huge sum for an abstract white-on-white painting by a fashionable artist. His lifelong friend Marc (Oliver Dennis), an engineer, is angry and incredulous, while the younger Yvan (Huse Madhavji), a shopkeeper, is a fence-sitter, agreeing privately with both men until he’s forced to choose sides. 

Reza is less interested in the painting than in what it says about the men. The joy in any production comes from the men’s realizations that their perceptions of each other are as arbitrary, and as subjective, as their view of art. 

Philip Akin’s staging lives up to the play’s grand title. Gillian Gallow’s set is suitably spare and minimal, with Dana Osborne’s costumes telling us as much about the characters as the dialogue (the footwear alone is revealing) and Bonnie Beecher’s lighting pin-pointing certain moments just-so. Thomas Ryder Payne’s sound design includes a “whoosh” sound during scene transitions that gives the production momentum and foreshadows a significant detail in the plot.

Even if the play feels a touch trivial today, it’s always been a terrific showcase for actors.

Matamoros captures Serge’s pride and self-satisfaction with ease, scurrying around in the play’s first half hour with lots of energy until his friends’ responses to his purchase begin weighing on him. His recreation of a woman dismissively waving around smoke – one of the play’s best passages – is rich with dramatic detail.

Dennis’s Marc is a droll, witty observer, all too eager to point out Serge’s pretensions. Madhavji, although he’s got diction and projection issues, makes his Yvan – who’s currently anxious about his impending marriage – a believable follower.

Christopher Hampton’s translation  from the French remains wry and entertaining. What doesn’t translate to the North American viewer is the men’s friendship. 

Having straight male friends talk about loving each other and argue over fine art doesn’t seem believable. 

There are many universal, if first-world-problem truths in the play. But even the most metrosexual of bros won’t buy into what’s going on.

@glennsumi

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