Serge and Marc have been friends for 15 years. If anything were to come between them, it should be a politics, or religion, or a woman. Instead, it's a painting.
After Serge splurges on an obscenely overpriced work of art consisting of a plain white canvas (that might contain off-white lines), he seeks Marc's approval. But Marc angrily rejects it as "white shit." Stepping in as peacemaker is their friend Yvan. Though he, too, sees little value in the pretentious painting, he timidly feigns interest to appease Serge.
This is the setup for Yasmina Reza's award-winning play about friendship and the painfully personal feelings that artistic differences can conjure. And because of its simple story, spare design and minimalist structure (80 minutes with no intermission), the play becomes a meta-theatrical commentary on the value of ultra-minimalism by itself becoming minimalistic. By doing so, it suggests that simplicity can often harbor complex humanity. In this instance, that humanity is hidden behind an alternatingly hilarious and emotionally powerful dramedy.
The play premiered in Paris in 1994, and the English translation by Christopher Hampton opened in London in 1996, with Albert Finney as Marc. A Broadway run followed in 1998 with Alan Alda and Alfred Molina. I had the privilege of seeing it in London in 2001, with George Segal, Paul Freeman and Richard Griffiths. Understandably, Mad Cow's production suffers in comparison to that version, but it still crackles with comedy and pathos thanks to director Mark Edward Smith, whose only significant mistake is a missed moment of hilarity involving Serge's amusing offer of olives (sans olive branch) to a hungry Yvan.
All three actors are Mad Cow veterans, and though their individual performances aren't always stellar, their chemistry is convincing. In the role of neurotic Yvan, Tommy Keesling steals scenes with his high-energy, rapid-fire delivery. And he nails the play's most famous monologue, a brilliant rant about the perils of marriage, delivered at the speed of His Girl Friday. Thom Mesrobian, as Serge, might not shine as brightly, but he brings a steadiness and believability. Lastly, Jay T. Becker, returning to Mad Cow for the first time in several years as Marc, is the most charismatic and dramatically sure of the performers, though his line delivery on opening night was a tad choppy.
William Elliott's simple set complements the story and allows the infamous painting to be the focus of many scenes. And his placement of the furniture in a black circle positions the characters – and their bitter attacks on one another – in a visual and thematic bull's-eye. In addition, his stark but clean color palette of blacks, whites and grays suit the script almost as successfully as Jerry Klein's on-point lighting. It's just a shame that transitions from one apartment to the next couldn't have been a bit more convincing and less clunky.
"Life imitates art far more than art imitates life," Oscar Wilde wrote. But – if only at Mad Cow – Art imitates both art and life, with hilarious and thought-provoking results.