(l. to r.) Jack Willis, Judd Hirschand Cotter Smith in ArtPhoto:  Joan Marcus
(l. to r.) Jack Willis, Judd Hirsch
and Cotter Smith in Art
Photo: Joan Marcus
Art compares the value of a painting to the worth of a friendship, both of which depend, ultimately, on the eye of the beholder. Using this highly theatrical, verbal and visual conceit, French author Yasmina Reza has come up with a witty comedy that places the assumptions of modern culture against the attitudes of three men who depend upon each other--according to their own needs. When one of them breaks the familiar patterns of those relationships, the fragile triangle is stretched nearly to the breaking point.

The winner of the 1998 Tony and Drama Critics Award for Best Play and the 1996-1997 Olivier and Evening Standard Awards for Best Comedy in London, Art has become an international phenomenon, being translated into at least 20 languages and now in Boston as part of an extensive cross-country tour.

Perhaps the play's popularity lies in its simplicity, for if ever there was a stage work based on the proverbial "two boards and a passion" theory, this is it. The plot, if 90 minutes (with no intermission) of escalating talk can be so described, revolves around a large, white-on-white painting that Serge (Cotter Smith), a Parisian dermatologist, has purchased for 200,000 francs. The painting, glowing with a kind of inner light and taking center stage, becomes the subject of a debate, kicked off when Serge shows it to his friend Marc (Judd Hirsch), an aeronautical engineer, and his other friend Yvan (Jack Willis), a stationery salesman.

Don't pay too much attention to the job descriptions, however, because they are an afterthought. In fact, life outside the stripped-down living room, designed with a attention to minimalism by Mark Thompson that can transform one man's apartment to another's merely by changing the painting on the wall, hardly matters.

What matters is what the painting does to the relationships at hand. Marc, Serge's best friend, is the central character, and he takes the purchase of the painting as a personal affront. He challenges Serge's sanity, his taste, and his motives for spending so much money on an object that Marc considers worthless. Yvan, the more rational fulcrum between the two, is called on to decide the question, yet he equivocates, not wanting to insult either friend. He, then, becomes the butt of their anger for not taking a stand.

You can imagine that the success of this play ultimately depends on casting--which in this case is impeccable with Judd Hirsch as the testy Marc, Cotter Smith as a sarcastic but urbane Serge, and the volcanic Jack Willis as Yvan--but also on the timing of the actors, each of whom must turn in an instant to deliver the emotional shifts. Matthew Warchus, who directed the play in London and New York, seems to have paid particular attention to that fact, shaping this production in such a way that it seems even sharper than in the play's initial Broadway outing. (Hirsch played the same role on Broadway and in London. Willis may be remembered fondly by Boston audiences for his many appearances at the American Repertory Theatre and at Huntington Stage.)

As the play progresses, the importance of the purchase recedes in favor of a truth game the men inflict on each other, disclosing opinions they had surpressed in the name of friendship. Yvan is the first to break down, in a hysterical outburst about the names on his upcoming wedding invitation, then about the loneliness that has dogged his life. As the layers peel back, Marc's dependency on Serge and the hurt he feels as Serge leaves him behind in this exploration of a new passion is made clear. The arguments end up in physical violence before a sacrifice is made for the sake of preserving the friendship. Watching the play again two years later, I wondered how the same situation would play out if three women were involved.

Just as Art asks its characters to re-examine their basic core, Art also asks us to consider the strength of our opinions and how they are formed, whether by influence from others or through a genuine soul-search or attraction. It's to Reza's credit, and to the skill of three fine actors, that the repartee holds such meaning beyond the laughter.