But Reza's play, translated from its original French by Les Liaison Dangereuses author Christopher Hampton, uses art predatorily. It traps in its jaws many questions about friendship: How do we maintain one in a disposable culture? What happens when a lifelong friend does something reprehensible or merely vulgar? And what does it say about us when our friends behave against our tastes and values?
Marc (David Fritts) opens the play by ridiculing his best friend's new purchase: a 5-foot-by-4-foot canvas that is white on white and costs 200,000 francs. The artwork makes Serge (John Rensenhouse) terribly proud; it says that he's on the cutting edge. "Three hang in the Pompidou!" he says with unself-conscious vanity. "Three!" Now he's got one, trumping his friends' more pedestrian tastes. (In describing one of Marc's paintings, he says it's "pretty," the venom practically dripping from his lips.)
Marc's outrage intensifies when a mutual friend, Yvan (Dan Barnett), says that he kind of likes the white picture. When Marc viciously quizzes Yvan about what, exactly, he likes about it, Yvan's response that it has "resonance" aggravates Marc even more. He's never really thought much of Yvan anyway, and this succinct analysis from someone he considers a loser isn't easy to take.
The canvas is like the mirror from Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, reflecting the wickedness that social graces keep in check. These men are prepared to snuff out the friendships that have sustained them, because, if they disagree about something so banal as a painting, what could they possibly have left to bind them? The target of their shared wrath moves from the painting to people -- in turn, Yvan's fiancée and Marc's partner. Serge doesn't like Marc's choice, Marc doesn't like Yvan's, and the circle grows ever more vituperative. The stage, becoming a cage of rattlesnakes, has never held such bitchy men.
Directed by Mark Robbins with as much attention to individual words and gestures as to the overall story, Art is full of resonance of its own. Words such as "modern" and "deconstruction" appear early in the play and later become weaponry. Even a "no" elicits laughs in the way it signifies arrogance, finality, and obviousness. And Reza writes beautifully, almost musically, as in a riff from Serge (in reference to Marc's fly girl) about "the way she waves away cigarette smoke." Said several times, the sentence becomes a hypnotic chant.
Rensenhouse and Fritts are perfectly cast. Both are wonderful as, respectively, the clamorous aesthete and the cultural fireman who douses Serge's hot head. Their characters are horrible to one another yet they share a platonic love that culminates with, of all things, a blue magic marker. (Talk about reading things into a doodle -- it's the only color in the show.) Barnett's performance, though, is more enigmatic. His Yvan is a chatterbox and a bit of a bore, yet he's played at a level of histrionics that is utterly out of sync with his costars' cool cynicism. At the end of the play, one wonders why Serge and Marc keep him in their fold; if Barnett's been directed to yell and flail about, then he's doing his job.
The busiest costume designer in the city, Georgianna Londre, keeps her subjects in monochromatic grays and blacks. The wardrobe parallels Atif Rome's smooth and icy set -- a minimalist's nirvana. Lighting designer Jeffrey Cady does a nice job illuminating the uninterrupted palette of set, dress, and words.
Planned Parenthood CEO Peter Brownlie says Interactive Teen Theatre was victimized in the wake of a court case about family planning monies in Missouri; the agency lost the case and subsequently $630,000 from its budget but is appealing the decision. "There were cuts everywhere; it was really unfortunate," says Brownlie, who adds that the Columbia troupe, though also scheduled to fold at the end of 2000, will continue through the end of the current school year.
Brownlie says that, should the agency recoup the funds in a reversal of the decision, he would be interested in reviving the theater group. But McCrary isn't holding her breath.
"I would be open to doing it again, but that sounds like spin," she says. "I was never told why it was cut in the first place. And I wasn't able to give my actors an adequate explanation without being given one myself."