The Pasadena Playhouse offers a brilliant production of Yasmina Reza's comedy about three friends fighting over artwork and their lives.
Serge (Michael O'Keefe) has bought a 5x4 white painting for 200,000 Euros (approx $275,000). One of his best friends, Marc (Bradley Whitford), is personally offended by his buddy's purchase and tries to convince his other friend Yvan (Roger Bart) towards his cause. What could have been a quibble quickly spirals into an all-out war as years of frustration bubble over into Serge's ultra-modern apartment.
Reza's plays, such as the Tony Award-winning God of Carnage, are a difficult breed for some people to watch, because her characters are not just unlikable, but ugly reflections of our worst traits. It takes talented actors and a strong director to make such obnoxious people still compelling and this production succeeds. Moreover, Lee has paced the work so quickly that once a hearty laugh has landed, there's no time to be offended before the next line hits.
Whitford, best known for his role as Josh Lyman on NBC's The West Wing, portrays Marc as a pompous fool who not only believes strongly in his convictions but is aghast when others don't see the world his way. Whitford pontificates, using every last ounce of breath, until he's red in the face.
O'Keefe appropriately plays Serge as a self-amused poseur, one who on the surface believes himself to be an esthete, but in actuality, will only receive validation if everyone else believes it too. His tone and icy glances reveal both his snootiness and an underlying insecurity at the same time.
The gem of the piece is the comically brilliant performance by Bart as the put-upon Yvan. With his spiked hair, a pulled-tight grin, and slumped shoulders, he's a modern day Stan Laurel being beaten into submission by two Oliver Hardys. And even if Yvan is as manipulative and selfish as his counterparts, Bart plays him as such a lovable imp that when his compatriots question why they're even friends with him, it reflects their shallowness, not his lack of worth.
In its own way, there are more than three characters in this play. Much of the conversations revolve around Tom Buderwitz's scenic design, and the cold steel-bar filled living room (which doesn't feel lived-in) and the three pieces of artwork (one owned by each character) that are the play's metaphors are superbly conceived.