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If you see Art, Intrepid Theatre Company’s seventh season opener and the inaugural show in its first full cycle of plays at downtown’s Horton Grand Theatre, don’t put a lot of stock in your program. It shows a cast of three, but some might say the list omits the arguable central character — a 5-by-4 wall painting that threatens the others’ longtime relationship.

Petty jealousies and looming insults rule the day in its presence, with the three eventually coming to blows over flaps that have nothing to do with the piece itself.

And that’s just it. Playwright Yasmina Reza hasn’t crafted a discussion about art so much as peeled back the paper-thin layers to this friendship, and her sense of cadence, editorship and fun have earned her a clutch of awards (including a best play Tony) for a 1994 piece that ran for 600 Broadway performances and has been translated to 30 languages from its original French. Director Christy Yael-Cox handsomely exploits Reza’s every nuance here, and Sherrice Mojgani’s tricky lights provide the bulk of the technical pop.

Their facial expressions are character studies in themselves as Serge, Yvan and Marc (from left, Jason Heil, Jacob Bruce and Daren Scott) debate the obviously unassailable. Photo courtesy Intrepid Theatre Company.

Their facial expressions are character studies in themselves as Serge, Yvan and Marc (from left, Jason Heil, Jacob Bruce and Daren Scott) debate the obviously unassailable. Photo courtesy Intrepid Theatre Company.

Indeed, the great production values hint that there’s more to the story than the sketch-inspired comedy. Sometimes Reza delivers accordingly; frankly, sometimes she doesn’t. And while the latter isn’t the end of the world, the void can, and maybe does, leave us waiting for a little deeper denouement.

Serge, a divorced dermatologist with an apparent boatload of discretionary income, has just spent a jaw-dropping $200,000 on a blindingly white painting by a cult-favorite relative unknown. His friend Marc, an aeronautical engineer, is staggered not only by the price tag but also amid the incessant monochrome, interrupted by only a few faint lines of more white.

“Shit” is his only descriptor. And his braying, curmudgeonly laugh will soon come to influence the hapless Yvan, a layabout stationery sales clerk. The more he talks to Marc, the more he dislikes the painting, while Serge’s swoons of approval propel him in the opposite direction.

There’s more to Yvan’s vacillation — he’s getting married and finds himself in the middle of a protocol flap, now getting little solace in the company of his already prickly friends. Jacob Bruce’s delivery here is absolutely outstanding, betraying Yvan’s frustration with much more than the petty extracurricular squabble (involving two snooty parents). Daren Scott’s loudmouth Marc and Jason Heil’s heart-heavy Serge are patently up to the task, with Marc hurt amid his failure to control Serge’s take on the painting and Serge disparaging Marc’s thick-headed empiricism.

Eventually, there’s some question as to what brought these guys together in the first place…

Ironically, and even though he doesn’t know it, Yvan is the only one with any clue to the painting’s perceptual qualities. In trying to accommodate both sides in the argument, he says he can see glimmers of other colors along the way — and under the right light, he probably does, since white includes every color in the visible spectrum.

Brian Byrnes’ funny fight scene is the culmination of inconsequential observations like that one, and it’s staged in keeping with the play’s sense of caricature. But the more the arguments ensue, the more they play on the story’s ensemble culture. Eventually, there’s some question as to what brought these guys together in the first place — and even as she explores each man’s shortcomings, Reza ain’t tellin’.

Besides, these three have been together for 15 years; surely, and despite Reza’s portrayal to the contrary, this can’t be the first time they’ve locked horns over something as subjective as art (especially if self-righteous Marc is in the picture).

Yasmina Reza's 'Art' has been translated to 30 languages and won a 1994 Tony for best play. Photo by Babelio.com.

Yasmina Reza’s ‘Art’ has been translated to 30 languages and won a 1994 Tony for best play. Photo by Babelio.com.

Do enjoy Michael McKeon’s well-conceived set (he’s assisted by Alex Newberry); its sparseness and unendingly perpendicular angles direct an almost accusatory vibe at poor Yvan. Equally, the guys’ duds are absolutely spot-on, reflecting insights into one another’s character the way only Jeanne Reith, the greatest costumer in the history of the universe, can intertwine them. Kevin Anthenill’s sound and music provide excellent commentary while managing not to intrude.

In fact, and by all means, see this highly polished and popular piece, the product of some obvious hard work and an ideal opportunity for Yael-Cox to strut her chops. You’ll enjoy Reza’s wordcraft and all it evokes — her uplifting look at the mechanics of friendship might not always hold up in the philosophical sense, but that doesn’t make the play a bad one.

This review is based on the opening-night production of Oct. 1. Art runs through Nov. 6 at Horton Grand Theatre, 444 Fourth Ave. downtown. $33-$58. 888-71-TICKETS, intrepidtheatre.com.

Martin Jones Westlin

Martin Jones Westlin

Martin Jones Westlin, principal at editorial consultancy Words Are Not Enough and La Jolla Village News editor emeritus, has been a theater critic and editor/writer for 25 of his 47 years... More...

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