WATERTOWN - French playwright Yasmina Reza has an undeniable gift for shrewd social observation. Would that she possessed a matching gift for dialogue.
As an admirable cast bickers its way through Reza’s “Art’’ at the New Repertory Theatre under the direction of Antonio Ocampo-Guzman, an unwelcome thought keeps crowding into the mind: This is not how real people talk.
Not even the kind of over-educated, over-analytical, overwrought men who natter on like Frasier and Niles Crane after one too many cappuccinos, arguing about the merits of a painting that is extremely costly and entirely white.
Yet somehow, despite the arch, mannered, stilted exchanges that often fall gratingly on the ear (and it’s possible something has been lost in Christopher Hampton’s translation), the play of ideas in “Art’’ adds up to an absorbing evening and, I think, fundamentally a better play than Reza’s “God of Carnage,’’ currently at the Huntington Theatre Company.
“Art’’ is framed by a large and important question, one that most of us have grappled with: What’s the right course of action if a longtime friend is suddenly revealed as someone you didn’t know as well as you thought, and may never really have known at all?
On the way to that weighty what-if, “Art’’ explores a couple of related issues: Does a difference in cultural taste among friends matter, and if so, how much? Can it rise to the level of a deal-breaker?
The opening scene of the New Rep’s “Art’’ pushes such topics to the forefront without a single word being spoken.
Two men are in a tastefully appointed apartment (by set designer Justin Townsend), gazing at an artwork with very different expressions on their faces. Serge (Robert Walsh) is positively palpitating with aesthetic pleasure, but Marc (a goateed Robert Pemberton), wears a look that slides from perplexity to dismay and back again.
The object of their attention is an all-white painting, by a fashionable artist named Antrios, that Serge has just purchased for 200,000 francs. (One is reminded of Marshall McLuhan’s line that “Art is anything you can get away with.’’)
When Marc voices his witheringly low opinion of the painting, Serge takes heated offense. He sees the painter as a genius and the painting as a masterpiece, and he takes Marc’s caustic criticism as a personal attack. Soon their disagreements about form and color escalate into dissections of each other’s words, motives, and character, sometimes addressed to each other, sometimes in asides to the audience.
“It’s true I can’t imagine you genuinely loving that painting . . . because I love Serge and I can’t love the Serge who is capable of buying that painting,’’ says Marc. Another friend, a hapless chap named Yvan (Doug Lockwood) who is bedeviled by doubts about his impending marriage and about his career in the stationery business, is caught in the middle of their quarrel.
The entire trio begins to wonder what, fundamentally, they have in common.
As in his superb 2010 New Rep production of Terrence McNally’s “Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune,’’ which starred Pemberton and Anne Gottlieb, Ocampo-Guzman builds an increasingly claustrophobic atmosphere - a sense that the stage is shrinking and there’s nowhere to hide - as the tensions rise in “Art.’’
All three performances are strong. Lockwood gives Yvan an amusingly hangdog demeanor, but brings a note of real desperation to a scene in which Yvan rebels at the constraints of his role as comic sidekick, and of his life. Pemberton calibrates his portrayal of Marc in a way that keeps us guessing as to how much of Marc’s animosity toward the painting stems from genuine contempt for the work and how much derives from his resentment of Serge’s newfound independence of mind.
In Walsh’s carefully balanced portrayal, Serge does not seem an absurd figure; the object of Serge’s ardor may be dubious, but the ardor is utterly genuine. Serge’s finest moments, though, come not when he is passionately defending the painting, but during a pair of scenes - one comic, one dramatic - that are, fittingly enough in a play where sometimes words get in the way, silent.Don Aucoin can be reached at email@example.com.