A juicy role in the play Art provides a serendipitous swan song for actor Bill Molesky
With community companies we usually expect the play to be the thing. Directors start with shows, such as The Sound of Music or Reefer Madness, and then search for a cast. Not this time. For the Covey Theatre Company’s production of Art, now at the Mulroy Civic Center’s BeVard Community Room, we start with the cast.
Even without being the top winner (seven times!) at the Syracuse New Times Syracuse Area Live Theater (SALT) Awards, Bill Molesky has enjoyed incomparable prestige among his colleagues. Now that he has sworn to leave town at the end of summer, Molesky had to appear in something as a finale and a farewell. After a false start with another project by playwright Yasmina Reza, director Garrett Heater turned to her Art, about three guys and a white painting. As expected, Molesky’s role, Yvan, favorably exploits his prominent strengths. More surprising is that the other two players, Michael O’Neill and Josh Mele, both SALT winners, are never overshadowed. This is a play about male bonding and friendship.
Art, which opened in Paris in 1994, has been one of the world’s most produced works over the last 20 years for many good reasons. The verbal wit, well-polished in Christopher Hampton’s translation, retains all its incisiveness and penetration. It’s that rare comedy of ideas where no one is excluded from the joke, but deep enough to provoke post-theater conversation again and again.
Better yet, each production, even without changing a word, keeps giving us a different drama. When Art moved to London in 1996, the star was presumed to be Albert Finney as Serge, the haughty aesthete who buys the painting that sets the argument in motion. When Art moved to New York City, Victor Garber’s Serge lost ground to the cynical Marc played by Alan Alda, whom audiences had not seen so edgy before.
The three Parisian men describe themselves often as “best friends” and have been getting together for 15 years for a boys’ night out. As recounted by Marc (Josh Mele) in an opening monologue, the evening’s light entertainment began slowly because Yvan (Bill Molesky) was late again. In the interval, the host, Serge (Michael O’Neill), a dermatologist, proudly announces to Marc alone that he has just purchased a painting for 200,000 francs (about $35,000 when Art premiered). Attributed to a fictional artist name Andrios, Serge is convinced he has an artistic treasure and also a sound investment. The gallery owner would buy it now for 220,000 francs. Marc, an aeronautical engineer, curtly deflates Serge’s vanity of possession with a snap judgment: “It’s shit.”
Yvan, whose tolerance has been described as a liability, tries to find a middle ground. He also wants to please. When he privately hears Marc’s rant against the painting, he smiles and nods agreement. Later, alone at Serge’s place, he claims to be moved by the painting’s subtle power. This middle ground is quickly discovered by both Serge and Marc. They pelt Yvan with brickbats like “spineless,” ”coward” and “amoeba.”
The painting is a 3-by-4-foot rectangle.
Serge would have us believe that there are many different shades of white as well as streaks of gray and light blue, but we don’t see them. Upon inspection, at least from the seats where critics sit, we can perceive tex tured patterns across the surface. These evanescent details are not enough to assure that Serge isn’t displaying the work upside down.
Although the name Andrios is Reza’s invention, the all-white painting is no mere playwright’s contrivance. Kasimir Malevich, a now forgotten Russian Supremist, produced the original white-on-white canvas in 1918. As Reza employs Serge’s painting here, it is a stand-in for modernism, which started around the time of Pablo Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” in 1907 and has been losing ground to post-modernism recently. Modernism was always confrontational and argumentative. Modern art, whether it was Dadaism in painting or Serialism in music, was always about taking a stand. The new art asked the viewer or listener to forget those needs bred into us from evolution, like the craving for comfort, beauty and reassurance, and to seize the revolutionary aesthetic.
Although Reza pointedly links each man with a profession, they remain flesh and do not become manipulable symbols. Serge, the dermatologist, makes his living on surfaces and appearance. Marc, the aeronautical engineer, is a practical man of science and an iconoclast. His emperor never wears clothes. If the play were American rather than French, he’d be ranting against elitists. What makes him French is a quality we find rarely in the United States outside special military units and certain cults, a kind of non-erotic embrace. Marc is affronted and wounded that Serge has taken to the painting in the first place. Mending that broken bond is what leads to Art’s unexpected conclusion.
The most human of the three, if not the most admirable, is the schlemiel Yvan. He has the two best comic speeches in the play, one short, one long. In the short he defines life from his limited perspective: “Marriage, children, death, stationery.” In the show-stopping aria of whining, Yvan must spin out a zigzagging narrative of misdeeds that might have come toward the end of a Feydeau farce. It’s a bravura moment for Molesky as Yvan explains how his future in-laws dominate his life and his accommodating unwillingness to get into fights makes life miserable and how it will doom his upcoming marriage.
With his rich baritone and heavy dark brows, Molesky was not built to be your average light comedian. The greatest contribution his persona gives to Yvan is a moral weight that will not let the character be blown off, as he has been in other productions, when Serge and Marc make their peace. The character from the Molesky repertory this Yvan most resembles is his almost Tolstoyan portrayal of Lady Bracknell in Simply New Theatre’s 2008 production of The Importance of Being Earnest, whose gravity paradoxically made the absurdity of her concerns even funnier. This Yvan plumbs an existential angst that Serge and Marc do not know. “You’re always talking about yourself,” Serge observes unsympathically.
Engineer Marc, as embodied by Josh Mele, one of our best-known tenors, could hardly make a sharper contrast with Yvan. With the precise speaking voice only trained singers have, Mele’s Marc is angrier and more forceful than those who have come before, while still crackling with humor. Marc speaks to us first in a soliloquy, and his disgust with the painting drives the action. It is Mele’s passion and solidity that carry Marc on the longest arc of any character.
With a new white beard, Michael O’Neill is the oldest of the trio and also the tallest. Perhaps it is O’Neill’s many appearances in nice-guy roles that give his Serge unusual sympathy. He also can make plausible Serge’s assertion that there really is something in the painting if we only had the patience and heightened sensibility to see it. But when combat comes with Marc, O’Neill’s Serge can throw a stinging jab.
Director Garrett Heater keeps the trio constantly on the move. His resolution of the fraternal conflict is surer and more convincing than that in other local productions. And with enormous changes at the last moment, his Covey Theater Company enters a second year with sure footing.
This production runs through Saturday, July 16. See Times Table for more information.