Juan Isler Sparkles in Yasmina Reza’s 1998 Tony Award®-Winning Comedy, Art, at Burning Coal

Burning Coal Theatre Company will stage Yasmina Reza's Art on Jan. 27-Feb. 13 in Raleigh's Murphey School Auditorium
Burning Coal Theatre will stage Yasmina Reza’s Art on Feb. 5, 6, and 10-13 in Raleigh’s Murphey School Auditorium

When the curtain rises on Burning Coal Theatre Company’s production of French playwright Yasmina Reza’s 1994 Paris, 1996 London, and 1998 Broadway comedy, Art, translated into English by Christopher Hampton and directed for Burning Coal by Ken Hinton, Serge (Preston Campbell) has just purchased a new painting. It is a plain white canvas with a white line running diagonally across the canvas. He is ecstatic with his purchase. “It’s an Antrios!” he proclaims to his friends Marc (Byron Jennings II) and Yvan (Juan Isler) excitedly. Neither of his friends know who the artist is; but they are informed by Serge that he is a significant artist, and this is a significant painting.

When Yvan and Marc ask how much he spent, Serge proudly reveals that he has spent $200,000 francs on the piece (which converts to approximately $350,00 U.S. dollars in today’s money). Marc is aghast, and protests loudly that the painting is horrendous and the expenditure insane. Yvan is tentatively supportive. Serge is angry and hurt.

Thus begins a blunt discussion about the value of art and taste, but it becomes quickly apparent that this is really a play about friendship. In fact, the show deals more about humanity than the concept of art, as the purchase seems to trigger an outpouring of old wounds between the old friends. Marc seems personally insulted that Serge likes the painting, let alone spent that he spent such a large sum of money on it.

Yvan has simple tastes; but he proclaims that if it makes Serge happy, that is fine with him. But Serge wants his friends’ approval for his purchase and calls out Marc as a snob. As the men talk separately and together, we see that the tenuous threads that hold their friendship together are at their breaking point.

These characters are archetypes, really. Serge is a wealthy dilettante, Marc is a classic snob, and Yuan is a simple peacemaker; and as the men argue their positions, the audience is challenged to decide whose team they are on. If the painting makes Serge happy, why should it matter that his friends don’t really like it? Who in their right mind spends $200,000 francs on art? Who cares what other people like if it makes them happy? Is modern art really valid?

The play also asks the audience to consider why anyone should listen to others’ opinions about our own taste? Why listen to others’ opinions about our own life choices? What does art say about its owner?

The play was a bit more abstract at times than I expected it to be, when the concepts presented could have been much more accessible, given the friends’ clear positions on the matter and their two-dimensional ways.

As for the scene itself (thank you, Joel Soren), the set is awash with a painter drop cloth and nondescript furniture, which keeps the art in the center focus. By simply changing the art on the easel positioned at the back of the stage, the set easily transforms between each friend’s home, with a simple change of picture. Serge has the expensive white canvas, Marc has a classic landscape, and Yuan has an apple tryptic. The actors do a terrific job of utilizing all of the set in a natural way.

The shining star was Juan Isler as Yvan, whose facial expressions and casual demeanor brought levity and laughs to the stage, and who kept the show from becoming an acerbic drama. With the palpable tension between Marc and Serge, it was a relief every time Yvan took the stage. He was the everyman, telling his friends that he just wanted to get along and get married. His stream-of-consciousness explanation to his friends about his wedding invitation drama had the audience in hysterics. I look forward to seeing him again soon onstage.

Burning Coal’s current presentation of Art, which won the Tony Award® for Best Play, is entertaining; and although it is billed as a comedy, the characters are really evaluating their relationships with each other, not the art, and so, like life, the play has many sides. Go decide which team you are on.

Burning Coal Theatre will stage Yasmina Reza’s Art on Feb. 5, 6, and 10-13 in Raleigh’s Murphey School Auditorium

Yasmina Reza’s ART (In Person and Virtual at 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 5, 6, and 10-13), translated by Christopher Hampton, directed by Ken Hinton, and starring Juan Isler as Yvan, Byron Jennings II as Marc, and Preston Campbell as Serge (Burning Coal Theatre Company in Murphey School Auditorium in Raleigh). VIDEOS: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC3qVv6iWGS3yQtVoFH5_XNQ. 2021-22 MAINSTAGE SEASON: https://burningcoal.org/mainstage/. THE PRESENTER: https://burningcoal.org/, https://www.facebook.com/burningcoaltheatrecompany, https://www.instagram.com/burningcoaltc/, https://twitter.com/burningcoaltc, and https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC3qVv6iWGS3yQtVoFH5_XNQ. PODCASTS: https://burningcoal.podbean.com/. THE SHOW: https://us.macmillan.com/books/9780571190140/art, https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-show/art-1693, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0137065/, and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Art_(play). THE SCRIPT (excerpts): https://books.google.com/. THE PLAYWRIGHT: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Yasmina-Reza, http://www.iobdb.com/CreditableEntity/1807, https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-cast-staff/yasmina-reza-9233, https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0722078/, and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yasmina_Reza. THE VENUE: https://burningcoal.org/plan-your-visit/ and https://burningcoal.org/history-of-the-murphey-school/. DIRECTIONS/PARKING: https://burningcoal.org/plan-your-visit/. COVID PRECAUTIONS: https://burningcoal.org/covid-precautions/. TICKETS: $25 ($15 students, teachers, and active-duty military personnel, and $20 seniors 65+), except $15 Thursday. Click here to buy tickets. INFORMATION: 919-834-4001 or info@burningcoal.org. PLEASE DONATE TO: Burning Coal Theatre Company. Kurt Benrud’s Review.

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Pamela Vesper has been a Raleigh resident for more than 20 years. A local attorney for licensed professionals, when she’s not in court, Pam can be found watching or participating in local theater productions or enjoying the vibrant Raleigh music and craft beer scene. She also loves indie and foreign films and was an anchor on the local cable show, Movie Minutes. Pam has an opinion on just about everything; just ask her. Click here to read her reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment.