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Symphonie Fantastique
Basil Twist's all-underwater "Symphonie Fantastique" (photo: Jamie O'Quinn)  

[1] FOUND-OBJECT THEATER: W. David Hancock's "The Race of the Ark Tattoo"
[2] LAZY SUSAN: Joshua Sobol's "Village"
[3] NEGLECTED PLAYWRIGHT: Jim Grimsley's "The Lizard of Tarsus"
[4] LIVING-ROOM SWEDE: August Strindberg's "Playing With Fire"
[5] MENAGE A CYBER: Craig Lucas's "The Dying Gaul"
[6] AN AMERICAN MUSICAL: Basil Twist's "Symphonie Fantastique"
[7] THREE TALL PHILISTINES: Why is Yasmina Reza's "Art" a Broadway hit?

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FOUND-OBJECT THEATER: W. David Hancock's "The Race of the Ark Tattoo"
Long after it's over, W. David Hancock's "The Race of the Ark Tattoo" lingers like a painfully deepening blister in the memory. And the wonder is that despite its grim view of the world, a witty sense of humor manages to register at all. Hancock suffuses his ephemera-laden aesthetic with a sad, bitter despondency. In the guise of a small exhibit ("Conventions of Cartography"), a blighted performance of "The Tempest" ("Deviant Craft") or a flea-market lecture ("Race of the Ark Tattoo"), Hancock's plays are metaphysical detective tales which slowly unveil the melancholic life of crazies, weirdos, prisoners, eccentrics and completely unreliable characters who, nevertheless, offer up a whole gallery of bric-a-bracs and cheap-looking detritus as authentic evidence. These found-objects are not the private property but the personal effects and doo-dad clutter of the dead, the missing or the hidden identities who in some terrible way are related to these wacko protagonists who fetishistically collect them. These found-objects are also necessary props to Hancock's treacherous theatricks. Though the found-objects trigger scattered memories, wild digressions and even wilder stories which then propel forward Hancock's plays, we have to assemble in our minds the exact nature of the human mystery being circuitously dramatized before us.

Mr. P. Foster (splendid Matthew Maher) in "Race of the Ark Tattoo," for instance, uses a flea-market setting to sell the collected artifacts of his deceased foster father, Mr. Homey Phinney, who himself has kept a flea-market out of his garage in Cape Cod. Foster's unnerving tales are as much painful stories of loss, alienation and dismay as they are a complexly layered account of a severed relationship. Like the clutter of meaningless objects that fill the tiny gallery space on the 9th street side of P.S. 122, the various anecdotes mean to frustrate us. Though they seem to overflow with symbolic weight and poetic insight, both the objects and the anecodotes that accompany them make connecting the narrative dots a little difficult. Billed in the posters as a "flea market followed by a lecture," Hancock's ingenious play deliberately takes a winding route: the order of Foster's stories are subject to chance. And since audience members must choose objects from Foster's "story arc" (actually a toy-sized Winnebago with a shoulder strap), the order of the stories is subject to random behavior; this reliance on chance effectively insures that the narrative associations an audience collectively takes away from the performance in one night would easily differ from those gathered by the next batch of audience members during a different night. All this (postmodern) discontinuity is greatly intensified by Maher himself, a hairy hoary hairlip of a depressive wreck whose "crude performance" (brilliant performance of crudity?) is characterized by occasional blackouts and serious memory lapses. At one point, the actor Maher forgets his lines; he goes blank. When the absent-minded stage manager ruffles the pages of script, desperately seeking for the right place in the script, Maher breathes angry mutters because the noise she kept making had made it even more difficult for him to get on with his story on his own. All through out "Race of the Ark Tattoo," members of the audience would occasionally giggle or titter; I guess they're hoping that their laughter would give them a sense of emotional comfort. Yes, we're in on the ironic joke, their laughter implied. But the undercurrent of rage, menace, and alienation that flows through and pervades the hour-long solo play effectively demolishes any sense of comfort, ease or emotional relief. Along with Melanie Joseph's liminal direction, Hancock persuades us of the authenticity of his hoax-like puzzle plays through the sheer bulk of discarded ephemera and exotic accumualtion--and then compels us to accept the whole megillah as ontological mystery. And it is precisely because the core of the play emerges from the dark, rusty crevices of a disintegrating memory that makes "Race of the Ark Tattoo" a haunting journey. At the end of the riveting evening, when the programs are handed out to the audience on their way out the door, Hancock makes a last-minute admission that the flea-market event we've just seen is actually made up: It's only a play, folks. But this act of pulling a rabbit out of a magician's hat only deepens the terrible ambiguity which underscores Hancock's twisted dissection of the nature of theatrical character and the authenticity of identity.

LAZY SUSAN: Joshua Sobol's "Village"
The persistence of death and the inscrutability of memory are also the themes of Joshua Sobol's "Village," presented by the Gesher Theater of Israel (a seven-year-old company founded by Russian Israelis) as part of Lincoln Center Festival '98 last June. The difference, however, is that "Race of the Ark Tattoo" tastes like a bitter pill while the felicitously quirky "Village" tastes like sugar. It is a theater of the marvelous, with the shadow of death and pain of memory played out in high spirits and magical flair. "Memory, true memory, as opposed to false mythologized memory, is always personal, always individual," the Israeli Sobol once wrote in a defense of "Ghetto" (presented in 1989 at Circle in the Square). Sobol's childlike Yossi, played winningly by Israel (Sasha) Demidov, is an naive gravedigger who doesn't realize that he is, in fact, dead, that his spirit travels round and round, like a carousel.

From its "Our Town-like" opening scene, where Yossi introduces all the characters from their graves, Sobol's "Village" effectively draws a cheerfully idyllic tall tale, set in a time before the state of Israel was proclaimed. Though the play runs for three hours, the pace is kept fast, the tone is pithed light-heartedly, and the spirit is fanciful. It's a play about the Holocaust all right, but it's the sort where a barnyard turkey talks and a dead goat comes back from the grave to become the close confidante of a gravedigger (Yossi) who never sees combat and so resolutely fails to understand the fatal implications of the war. In staging "Village's" pastoral world, director Yevgeny Arye literally spins this farcical yarn about small- town life, set in the years leading to Israel's independence in 1948, on a moving carousel set, a lazy susan that whirls the characters into each new scene. It's as if the whole megillah free floats in a deliriously happy dream state--to be occasionally interrupted by sudden bouts of faraway violence and unseen warfare. In this way, Sobol keeps intimations of evil serenyl at bay. What puts the dizzy mysticism to earthly relief are the very prosaic depiction of everyday life in an Israeli settlement of Jewish pioneers. (At one point, a Jewish farmer and an Arab merchant haggle over the price and quality of manure; later, when the Holocaust breaks out, Sobol treats us to a roundelay of trysts, drinking, and moviegoing.) Without succumbing to saccharine sentimentality, "Village" plays like a coming-of-age conceit. It pivots on the irony of hisory seen through the eyes of a cipher: a gamine gravedigger who comes to grief only when the war shatters his idyllic world. When Yossi's own beloved brother (a soldier) gets killed in the war, Yossi's angel wings gets rudely clipped, and his blithe spirit comes crashing down to the ground.

NEGLECTED PLAYWRIGHT: Jim Grimsley's "The Lizard of Tarsus"
The Lizard of Tarsus
Jim Ligon in Jim Grinsley's "The Lizard of Tarsus" (photo: Susan Johann)  
Move over, Terrence McNally. For true cynical bile on Biblical topics, Atlanta-based playwright Jim Grimsley's "The Lizard of Tarsus" last June cuts the subversive cake. Recently published in new collection of Grimsley plays, "Mr Universe And Other Plays" (published by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill), "Lizard," as Reynolds Price says in his introduction to the play, dramatizes an imagined confrontation between Jesus and Paul of Tarsus, also known as Saul: "No writer known to me has poised that battle on an actual stage and turned it so many ways to the light," says Price. "I'd give a good deal to see and hear 'The Lizard of Tarsus' in a vivid production by a brave diretor of ferocious taste and with the three great actors required by Grimsley's arctic words and burning strength of judgment and mercy." Heeding that call, I ran to the Church of Holy Trinity's Triangle Theatre Company to see the last performance of "The Lizard of Tarsus," as directed by Joseph Megel of Harland Productions. (It's the same company that brought to New York Grimsley's "Math and Aftermath" in 1995.) And while the production was not quite the Road-to- Damascus journey that I was hoping for, Megel's production does tough-mindedly draw out the strange, peculiar power of Grimsley's allegorical play.

Set within the clinical confines of a white-walled prison cell, "The Lizard of Tarsus" dramatizes what-if: What would happen if Christ's Second Coming had finally arrived? According to Grimsley's play, if the Messiah did come, we would replay history, throw him in jail and crucify for a second time. He would be imprisoned by Paul (Saul of Tarsus), the acolyte responsible for spreading the gospel of Christ after the Pentecost. There's a brittle Santayana-like irony to this theological dilemma. For haven't those who claim to have spoken and acted in the hallowed name of Christ been themselves some of the worst, most un-Christlike citizens on the planet? Paul's complicity stems from being the head of a company of priests, ministers and elite who, like the biblical Pharisees, couldn't imagine that the Messiah would come in tattered, swaddling clothes. Instead they felt that the Saviour would come in a blaze of pomp and circumstance, with chariots descending from the clouds to save Israel.

In "The Lizard of Tarsus," Paul is exposed as a pseudo-mystic in Machiavellian garb. With J. in prison, Paul attempts to keep the mobs at bay and ascertain for himself, through insistent questioning in the guise of a deposition, that J. is, in fact, the biblical Christ. Paul boldly asks J. to show off his superearthly talent for pulling miracles in order to prove his divinity. What results is a comic war of wills, made all the more pointed by Grimsley's anachronistic mixture of contemporary references and biblical twists. J. does pull off a miracle (making the blind see), but Paul is denied the experience of seeing this miracle, just as he was apparently denied the first time around on the road to Damascus. Looking bewildered and hungover, this J. mercilessly offers that Paul's mystical visitation was an accident, some sci-fi-sounding cosmic blunder that became a prelude to megalomania and murder. (Grimsley's highly circuitous anachronism display his literary roots as a sci-fi fantasy writer. But as a dramatist, the elliptical poetry of his absurdist play shatters the ornate reflection of organized religion.) In "The Second Coming," Paul confronts his past for the delusion that it was, a tall tale built on the edifice of lies. The Roman Catholic Church's first bishop, Paul becomes responsible for J.'s eventual crucifixition. He repeats history. With J. dead again, Paul plans to exploit J. as a figure around which Paul can consolidate his own power and spiritual status among the masses. In retaliation, J. frustrates Paul by being unhelpful and unaccomodating: he himself is a teller of perplexing parables. And the significant parable that J. tells P., in retrospect, foreshadows the play's outcome: Grimsley's J. tells of a lizard, a reptile who he describes as "the Son of God, born of the Outcast in the desert heat...who has come to die for the sins of the world." J's backhanded suggestion is that those who call themselves sons of Paul may actually be deeply misled. The omnipotent God whom Paul erected is, according to J., is such a huge sham that Christians might as well be eternally crucifying a lizard.

LIVING-ROOM SWEDE: August Strindberg's "Playing With Fire"
In a highly actable and vastly entertaining new translation from the Swedish by Ulrika Brandt, August Strindberg's 1892 comedy in one-act "Playing With Fire" fictionalizes the early stages of his relationship with Siri von Essen, then married to her first husband Baron Carl Gustaf Wrangel. The play, as Richard Gilman points out in "The Making of Modern Drama," may be one of the more durable plays Strindberg wrote in the early 1890s when his marriage to Siri had dissolved and when he turned to more expressionistic, more surreally themed plays which began with "To Damascus." Set in a summer cottage, the play is a domestic comedy about a mysterious friend (Paul Megna) who derails the marriage between a seemingly happy couple (the Son played by Robert Alexander and the Wife, played by Paul Mcgonagle). Some comedy is wrought from the comings-and-goings of other characters--a mother, a father, and a cousin, all of whom stay in the cottage. But the mordant funnybone in Brandt's translation (which she directed herself as part of the Directing Cabaret at The American Living Room Series in association with Lincoln Center Theater) lies in the menage: the play draws an incisively cutting portrait of adultery, sexual ambivalence and personal chaos; the Son is so cynical that his nonchalance with regard to his wife, virtually ensures that she will stray; through his disregard and immaturity, he basically hands over his wife to the mysterious and passionate suitor.

The Dying Gaul
Tom Hopper, Cotter Smith and Linda Edmond in "The Dying Gaul (photo: Carol Rosegg)  
MENAGE A CYBER: Craig Lucas's "The Dying Gaul"
Adulterous love is also one of the troubling themes in "The Dying Gaul," Craig Lucas's powerful, Strindbergian vivisection of a menage a trois made in Hollywood and cyberspace. The play is being revived after it opened last spring at the Vineyard Theatre (108 East 15th Street, 212-353-3874, all tickets are $40, except Friday and Saturdays nights when tickets are $45); the show was almost killed by a wrongheaded review by Peter Marks in The New York Times. Performances resume from September 18 to October 25. And if there is any justice in the world, I predict a runaway hit.

I'm afraid, however, that the overly literal-minded may call into question several of "The Dying Gaul's" plot complications and find them clunky or clumsy (they are not). How, for instance, did Elaine know the identity of Robert's psychiatrist, enough to break into his office and steal Robert's personal files? How "realistic" are the cyberfantasy scenes between Robert and Elaine in which Elaine poses as Robert's dead lover, Malcolm? How could Robert actually believe that the dead Malcolm has been born again in cyberspace and send him regular email from the Great Beyond? And how exactly did that rare plant laced with deadly poison just suddenly appear at the precise moment that Robert's world crumbles into tragedy when he learns that Elaine fucked with his disturbed mind by creating a cyberversion of herself as Malcolm? How many eleven o'clock songs can you stand before you say you've just had it with all the manipulation?

All existence is solitary, and one of the signs of alienation, anxiety and solitude in the modern age is psychic suffering. So when the number of gay men who died of AIDS and other related diseases grew to epidemic proportions, AIDS plays became hugely popular in the 1980s because they ritualistically took the tolls of the extent of the physical suffering and the psychic pain. AIDS plays dramatize how sympathy is possible in the case of moral and psychical suffering. Though AIDS certainly hangs over "The Dying Gaul," Lucas hasn't written an AIDS play, as such. Neither is it what some ridiculously call "a post-AIDS play." "The Dying Gaul" is a darkly poetical, emotionally ruthless and psychologically freighted group portrait that depicts adult betrayal and modern anomie. Under the sleek direction of Mark Brokaw, Lucas spins a shiny urbane foray in the form of a psychological thriller: it is to 1990s what Antonioni's "L'Avventura" was in the 1960s: a brightly persiflaged drama that nevertheless burrows into the nightmarish and soulless heart of sexual betrayal, terrible grief, Faustian ambitions, and personal cruelty. Like Tony Kushner, Larry Kramer, Christopher Durang, David Drake, Nicky Silver and other contemporaries, Lucas insists on the tragedian dramatist's right to address social issues, like AIDS. But Lucas doesn't want to get caught in the formalistic traps of problem plays either; he doesn't want to explore black and white areas but instead displays the gray zones of complexity. So "The Dying Gaul" consciously breaks form with the cause-and-effect social-issue dialectic of the so-called white gay male AIDS drama.

The so-called clumsy complications are, in fact, dramatically necessary if the tragedy at heart of "The Dying Gaul" would be played out with terrible power and moral outrage. Lucas takes a fierce, harsh picture of the spiritual anomie and modern urban savagery which underlie casual, callous behavior and sexual infidelity. The play's professed villain, Jeffrey, is a bisexual Hollywood producer who signs up the gay screenwriter Robert who is mourning over his dead lover Malcolm. As we might expect, it's a Faustian bargain. When Jeffrey tells Robert that he must, in effect, straighten up the gay film he wrote about his relationship with Malcolm (the film's title directly refers to "The Dying Gaul," the sculpture of a dying Gaelic soldier in a classical frieze of death and defeat), Robert clearly doesn't untangle himself from a highly compromising position with the film producer. The two men fall into passionate embrace. Meanwhile, Elaine has always suspected that Jeffrey has been unfaithful. Because of their children and because she feels comfortable in the Hollywood world of money and prestige, what she is not willing to do, however, is to actually have sex with another man. In a world full of diseases, that would be dangerous. So Elaine practices her own form of "safe sex": she surfs the chat rooms on America Online, posing as a gay man. By so doing, she explores the mysterious world of anonymous liaisons and adult infidelity, but rationalizes to herself that she's not being unfaithful to Jeffrey because sex in cyberspace is virtual. On the Internet, bodies don't touch, bodies don't matter. What Hollywood is to Jeffrey, the Internet is to Elaine: an artificial format that offers godlike pleasures and almost limitless narrative possibilities. Elaine spins an identity on the web with same force, determination, and veracity that Jeffrey, the Hollywood producer, spins his own form of control over Robert's screenplay. Thus, Linda Edmond's tight- lipped performance splendidly matches Tony Goldwyn's insidious Jeffrey (in the revival, Cotter Smith will take over the role); Elaine and Jeffrey make for a perfect match. Both are masters of the way their systems work and the way in which their participation shapes their experience. Cyberspace, like Hollywood, is a realm in which we easily imagine ourselves to be omniscient.

What Elaine does not know, however, is that Jeffrey is having an affair with another man--Robert. At first, Elaine is genuinely attracted to Robert and poses as his dead lover, Malcolm, in order to get to know him. But then "The Dying Gaul" spirals into deceit the further she gets into the self-absorbed, illusory world of alternate reality and digital environments. Thinking that the computer has given her a unique opportunity to take control of life, she so buries herself into the world of the Internet that when she finds out that Jeffrey and Robert have been, in fact, lovers and have been doing it behind her back, she snaps, and the fragile world the Craig Lucas has carefully decked in front of us completely and tragically falls apart.

In "Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace" (MIT Press, 1998, 324 pages), Janet H. Murray argues that "all the representational arts can be considered dangerously delusional, and the more entrancing they are, the more disturbing. The powerful new storytelling technologies of the twentieth century have brought on an intensification of these fears." Although Murray ultimately argues forthe interactive medium of the computer, Lucas's dystopian view in "The Dying Gaul" offers that the Internet is as much an illusory environment as film. Drama, by contrast, is more vital. In Hollywood as well as in the Internet, artificial universes seem as real as the reality or perhaps even more real than reality. Formally speaking, Lucas's "The Dying Gaul" is experimental in that it comes to grips with how new media affects the realm of drama. But it is also traditional in that Lucas has written a powerful, stunning, terrifying, compelling and thoroughly relevant tragedy where new entertainment technologies, like the movies and the Internet, become the high-tech means by which human beings cause serious harm against one another. Like Alduous Huxley's "Brave New World" and Ray Bradbury's "Fahrenheit 451", "The Dying Gaul" disturbs not only because it caustically depicts how entertainment technologies debase humanity through galvanic, illusory means of arousal and stimulation (sex, money, power, chat rooms) but also because we are shown adulterous people behaving in a state of abject bestiality. But herein lies the difference: Unlike Huxley and Bradbury, Lucas offers no simple remake of new media nightmares. The suicidal Robert turns out to be no mere victim, no mere fallen soldier who gets pummeled to the dirt. Robert may be the titular "dying gaul," but in keeping with the classical tradition of tragedy, he is a seriously flawed protagonist. At the brink of collapse, he fights back and turns against his aggressors. And the Buddhist meditation that he prays at the end of "The Dying Gaul" is his way of living up to death. His final soliloquy is all the more poignant because, word for word, breath by breath, he attempts to completely unburden himself of resentment, guilt, terror, bitterness, hostility, and hurt without regret, without pleading for sympathy. A terrible tragedy of psychological and moral paralysis, "The Dying Gaul" is a masterpiece.

Symphonie Fantastique
Basil Twist's all-underwater "Symphonie Fantastique" (photo: Jamie O'Quinn)  
AN AMERICAN MUSICAL: Basil Twist's "Symphonie Fantastique"
While it is true that Basil Twist's chamber-musical ballet "Symphonie Fantastique" is the first puppet program to be completely underwater, it is not the first to employ scarves to expressive abstraction. For the latter, Twist will have to tip his hat to puppeteer Hanne Tierney who once presented a radical version of Chekhov's "The Seagull" using differently colored scarves--and only scarves. The brilliance of Tierney's "Seagull" was that she was able to portray all the drama of Chekhov's text without the use of actors, and in her case, she didn't even get that much help. (Tierney manipulated the scraves using a complex set of pulleys and recorded tapes on her own.) What's magnificent about "Symphonie Fantastique," in fact, happens at the end of the evening, when Twist's fellow puppeteers take their bow. The moment is stunning because for nearly an hour we have been seeing feathers, streamers, mirrors, bubbles, and flashes of light, all submerged in 500 gallons of water, all darting, swriling, drifting and floating in continuous motion, all performed to Hector Berlioz's Romantic composition by way of an old Philadelphia Orchestra recording led by Eugene Ormandy. As puppetry, it's an enthralling, undulating picture of a floating world. And by now critics and reviewers have heaped a hosanna of praise over the piece and have spilled considerable ink trying to put into words what is essentially an inexpressibly beautiful one- of-a-kind experience. So given that as a nominating judge for last year's Drama Desk Awards I helped give Twist nab a nomination and fought to have his name stay on the list for the duration of the season (despite the protestations of several know-nothing critics), I hope Basil Twist won't be upset if I express a couple of cavils. Meanwhile, if you're one of the few who still haven't seen this superb show, read my lips: Drag the kids and go!

As one of the lucky few who got to see "Symphonie Fantastique" in its early previews, I must confess to being somewhat disappointed by the elating result. Mostly because as a musical interpretation "Symphonie Fantastique" lags in the middle and left a lot of visual blandness which don't quite match the moody ominous harmonies of Berlioz's composition. Certainly it's much more assured, more visually descriptive, and less reductive than the narrative-driven synchronization of, say, "Fantasia." But as visual abstraction, Twist's presentation loses much of its novelty once we've figured out what he's up to. Mercifully, "Symphonie Fantastique" is a brief exercise, but it lacks the aesthetic elegance and imagistic complexity of, say, one of Ping Chong's creations. A certain monotony sets in parts. Plus it gets a bit tiring, following how Twist synchronizes movements to Berlioz's notes and melodies and tone shifts. And the final movement of "Symphonie Fantastique," where all the different pieces of cloth and feathers and things (which we've seen in parts) get all combined in various variations, lacks imaginative oomph. All these cavils aside, "Symphonie Fantastique" floats by like a lovely little reverie that could give Busby Berkeley, if he were alive today, a run for his money.

"Symphonie Fantastique" performs Tuesdays through Fridays at 7 p.m.; Saturdays at 2 p.m. and 10:30 p.m.; and Sundays at 5 p.m. Tickets are $25 ($15 for children age 12 and under). HERE is located at 145 Avenue of the Americas, one block south of Spring Street. Box office number is 212-647-0202.

THREE TALL PHILISTINES: Why is Yasmina Reza's "Art" a Broadway hit?
Starting the month of September, British actors Brian Cox, Henry Goodman and David Haig will take over the roles of Marc, Serge, and Yvan in Yasmina Reza's 1998 Tony Award-winning/1997 Olivier Award-winning play "Art" which has been adapted from the French by Christopher Hampton. And now that more popular actors like Alan Alda and Alfred Molina are gone, perhaps it's possible to see throw the smoke screen of celebrity and view the play clearly for what it really is: an intermittently funny not-bad one-act comedy about friendship.

I say this because in our country, celebrity culture easily throws a glittering veil over even the most mediocre works a glint of status. When people found out that no less than Sean Connery put up his own money to put up the play on Broadway, the market value of the play suddenly rose. (In this sense, the theater world parallels the aspirations of the art world.) And in a country where the taxpayers refuse to give up public money in support of cultural art, Reza's "Art," which has very little of meaning to say about men and certainly even less to say about art, proposes a safe and predictable forum by which those who freely profess that they don't know much about art can mock and ridicule those who value art altogether too much. Basically Reza's "Art" is a one-set comedy about how three men variously respond (or for that matter, fail to respond) to an all-white painting. The whole arc of the narrative starts from the acquisition of the said offending painting to the various responses to it (from hostile to indifferent to approving) and ends with how the three philistine men pick up the pieces of their splintered friendship. In between, Reza shows good craft, sleek style, wonderful dialogue, and a delightful sense of humor. The most dramatic moment happens when the all-white painting gets vandalized; this act produces a loud, audible gasp in the audience, primarily because most of what the play's insights about art concerns money: how expensive the all-white painting costs. And if there is anything in America with which people are most super-aware about it is money; it is scandalous to see the mutilation of anything which costs a considerable amount of money. (Consider, for instance, how owners of secondhand cars get angry when they see new scratches on an automobile.) Indeed, much of the humor in the play (and it is funny) issues from the stunningly ridiculous disparity between how much the paintings costs and how modest it looks. Let's put this another way: any notion of Minimalism or Conceptual art is lost on everybody involved, including the playwright, the characters and (apparently) the people who gave it Tony and Olivier Awards. If it says nothing about the history of art, "Art" has even less to say about male friendship. It's not clear that anything signficant is really at stake in the play except for bruised male egos. When the three men are not insulting each other with regard to the painting, the play takes pains to show us that there doesn't really seem that they have much of a friendship. The most "revealing" moment happens when all three men get tired of squabbling and just sit there around a table, quietly eating olives.

So why, you ask, is "Art" a hit? Because in an essential way it successfully dramatizes how even our closest friends become the most distant strangers when they profess tastes and predilections in art that completely confound our own personal sense of aesthetics. Though it is a very slim hook to hang an entire play on, "Art" makes comic hay over an ornery question: "How could you possibly like that piece of shit?" Reza makes an very entertaining case for this very real, very cantankerous, and very puzzling dilemma. For haven't we all been stunned at what our closest friends consider worthy of attention? Haven't we all split hairs over a controversial movie, a popular play, a museum painting, or Madonna's new look? Contrary to art's ability to forge common ground and contrary to the belief that art aspires toward universal recognition, one of the most basic, most fundamental and most unacknowledged functions of art is that it draws fine distinctions between people and their tastes. Art is the one realm of creative human endeavor that pulls its punches by its ability to make us disagree with one another. Even at the end of a millennium that has famously proclaimed the end of art, art isn't truly Art if it cannot divide (and, thus, conquer).

In the next "On the Razzle With Randy Gener," the topic of discussion will be: the state of contemporary Greek classical drama in America; and a historic opening of the La MaMa Annex with Ping Chong's new creation. [Gener]

Copyright © 1998 Randy Gener.

Randy Gener is a New York-based writer and theater critic who contributes to The Village Voice, The Star Ledger, Stagebill, American Theatre and Dramatists Guild Quarterly. He writes "Show & Tell," a column on the fine arts for HX Magazine/HX For Her. His e-mail address is RNDYGENER@AOL.COM.

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