Ironically, it is just this kind of passion for the subject that both helps and hinders the Emmy Award-winning actor in playing the role of the opinionated Marc in Yasmina Reza's 1998 Tony Award winning-comedy Art, now playing at the Pasadena Playhouse.
"There is definitely something about my character that I connected with," says Whitford, who will co-star with Roger Bart and Michael O'Keefe in David Lee's production. "I just very much understood this particular point of view. But modern art ticks me off in a way that makes me, personally, far less articulate than my character. I want to take a swing at the painting and show it to the audience and go, 'What a crock of shit!'"
Continues Whitford: "My character actually says something that drives me nuts about the modern art world. And that is: 'It's an originality contest.' It's no longer about communication. It's this monetized, elitist, originality contest, where the highest value in contemporary art is novelty. There's something about that that I find to be a pretty hollow criteria. In fact, I find it hard to remember my lines because I hate modern art so much."
It's not just painting that gets Whitford's juices flowing. "I get frustrated with a lot of the avant-garde theatre, which says, as I think a lot of modern art does, 'Fuck you. Understand me.' I find that hostile and elitist, and it pisses me off! And it's especially offensive to me within an arena called, oh so pretentiously, art. Which one would hope, however you define it, would have something to do with truth and inherent value. "
In the show, Marc's friend, Serge (O'Keefe) spends a small fortune on a large, all-white painting and invites Marc and their other close pal, Yvan (Bart), to come see it. What begins as a debate about the canvas quickly turns into brutal personal attacks that threaten their friendship.
"At first glace, when you look at a discussion about art basically obliterating a 15-year friendship, it seems kind of hard to imagine," says Whitford. "A way that I can link to that is that we all know there are certain situations when you shouldn't talk about politics or religion. But, how you feel about politics is an expression of your values. How you feel about religion is an expression of your values. And how you feel about art goes to a very fundamental place: It can be a very treacherous conversation if you suddenly realize that someone you felt very close to has a completely different view of a very fundamental thing."
As Whitford points out, the characters don't realize at first how their conversation will progress. "I think these guys stumble into a far more uncomfortable situation than they imagine they would get into. I also think it's almost an expression of the kind of friendship they have that they are willing to get into that kind of difficult conversation," he notes. "As David said on the first day, Art is basically a play about art and friendship. And it's also about how perception defines art and friendship."