Friendship and its disintegration…J.R. Sullivan directs Art at NAT

Friendship and its disintegration…J.R. Sullivan directs Art at NAT

By Edith McCauley

By Edith McCauley

Theater Critic

A play that seems to center on art and the personal tastes of three old friends begins as a light-hearted comedy and quickly becomes an intense examination of the relationships and values of Marc (Carl Palmer), Serge (John Kishline) and Yvan (Stephen Vrtol III). Serge has had the audacity to purchase a modern work, a completely white canvas, at an exorbitant price. Friend Marc’s immediate reaction is unbelief and hilarity. The audience relates. How could anyone be that stupid? Quickly moving to anger at his friend’s foolishness, Marc becomes completely irrational. Enter Yvan, the buffoon and buffer, trying unsuccessfully to moderate the situation.

In one act, Art and its expectation of an evening of comedy mirrors the anger and personal vendetta we see in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Serge’s Paris apartment, simple in the minimalist mode, reflects his modern tastes. The painting absolutely proclaims who he is. As in Shakespeare, “There is the rub.”

Marc’s Flemish landscape with a bit of Victorian drapery is equally revealing. Conservative, even in his choice of a lifetime companion, his emotional reaction seems overdone until we realize it is not about differing tastes, but his feelings of betrayal. A little older than Serge, Marc saw himself as mentor and trendsetter. His only reaction, uncontrollable rage.

Yvan’s still life represents an attempt to conform. His friends see him only as the simple, unassuming jokester, yet he alone is trying to find himself. Preparing for marriage, complicated by the fractured relationships of his parents, Vrtol’s most memorable scene reveals frustration and complete disintegration, continuing for several minutes. We gasp in disbelief at his ability to deliver the complicated and rapid-fire monologue. Vrtol’s body language has always been his forte. Art gives him the opportunity to display his talent. The audience acknowledged his return to NAT with applause the moment he appeared on stage. Remembering his years at NAT, we welcome him with open arms.

Sullivan’s choice of cast is perfect. Since going on with his career nationally, he has encountered a multitude of talent, giving him a wide choice when mounting a production. Obviously, his appreciation for Vrtol’s professionalism and ability made the option of his inclusion clear. After the show, a member of the audience said, “After a few minutes, we knew J.R. had directed this play.” His distinctive touch is reflected in every movement and line.

Returning to his home base in New York City, his next project, As You Like It, will be mounted in April.

Geoffrey Curley’s set includes a few pieces of Art Deco furniture, a geometric-patterned rug and muted pillars. The only indication of a change of scene are the three paintings that so aptly represent the characters. The subtle music in the background, so low key, fades as the anger mounts.

Modern art engenders emotions that go beyond reason. Soon after I began teaching at Martin Luther King School in the late ’70s, Alexander Lieberman was commissioned to create a sculpture for the downtown mall. The reaction was immediate. Letters were written, and meetings were held. My fifth graders investigated controversy in the arts and were aware that differing values generated intense emotion. Art is that controversy.

Running through Feb. 3, the show is sponsored in part by Bank One, Trekk Cross-Media Communications, ComEd, Deck the Walls and the Frances Shafer Smith Brown Memorial Fund.

It is highly recommended.

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