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Whiter Shade of Pale 

Canvassing friendship at the Rep's Art

If your friend does something stupid, do you speak up? Depends on what "stupid" is. For instance, dermatologist Serge has just "blown" 200,000 francs on a painting. When he tells his two oldest buddies, their reaction detonates various explosions in a longtime friendship. The aggressive Marc (an engineer who has read Paul Valéry) thinks Serge has lost his mind and decides he "can't love the Serge that would buy the painting." He enlists the help of feckless Yvan, chronically unemployable, currently toiling in the stationery shop owned by his fiancée's family. But Yvan doesn't quite agree. (Perhaps it's his job -- shuffling all that white bond may have worn down his resistance.) As for the painting that starts all the trouble -- well, we're told there's more there than meets the eye, and what meets the eye isn't much. The work is white paint, thickly applied on a 4-by-5-foot canvas. Beaming Serge gets every possible reaction from the trio when he hauls it out, from puzzled bemusement to sardonic laughter.

Playwright Yazmina Reza won a Tony Award and a New York Drama Critics Circle Award for this slight but appealing one-acter (just 90 minutes). Though lacking an intermission, the play is in two parts. The first is a series of brief scenes with two of the three friends, punctuated with blackouts during which one character delivers a spotlit monologue on culture, friendship or pretension. The second half is an extended conversation among all three men in which we learn much, much more in the way of backstory. Unfortunately, this section only points out the thinness of the dramatic aspects. In a more intimate setting (the Studio Theatre, say, but one presumes monster royalties must be paid), Art would probably seem deeper. These guys take their aesthetic disagreement over the painting and let it stand in for the problems in their relationships with one another.

At the Rep, I felt an unsettling sense of familiarity during the first several scenes, and then it hit me: television. The comforting two-shot dialogue, the way characters ride each other's vanities and then offer deadpan asides to the audience, even the entr'acte music (a cool-jazz staccato snare drum that rarely alters) all summon up the comforting elements of a mostly enthralling dramedy. However, Art often enough rises above this particular form. The laugh lines -- "He's tolerant because he couldn't care less" -- indicate great insight into a preserve rarely breached by anyone aside from A.R. Gurney: middle-class males who aren't (à la Mamet) just trying to hustle a buck.

Costume and scene designer Michael Ganio's plain but elegant grayish-greenish set has panels suggesting high ceilings. He's dressed his trio in similar monotone casual wear. The first half of the show takes place in three separate apartments, which are denoted by a couch, an easy chair and a side chair of wildly differing designs -- a jarring note, because these objects are more distracting than they should be, whereas the actors seamlessly blend into the background. Director Steven Woolf picks up on the jokey-yocky aspects of the show and seems to have urged the cast to milk their lines for the ba-dum-bum moments rather than the deeper emotions. Worse, there's real stasis in the blocking. Why have Paul DeBoy, as Yvan, deliver the most hilarious monologue in the show -- a litany of complaints about a family argument concerning his wedding-invitation layout -- while sitting on a low table? This speech marks the beginning of the second half, and you can see the actor squirming in place, wanting to jump and pace and wave his arms.

A little movement might actually perk up the timing, although DeBoy is the most energetic player, with plenty of frazzled mannerisms reminiscent of Jack Lemmon in the early '60s. Anderson Matthews plays Serge as a tomcat who's swallowed the cream, a performance a touch more smug and heartless than his turn as George in last season's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Remi Sandri's Marc is appropriately arrogant and anxious. It's the most difficult part, because his only laughs arise from philistine or intolerant comments -- you can't believe what a stick this guy is. Happily, Sandri conveys Marc's rage and regret skillfully. Translator Christopher Hampton has rendered a serviceable text that wouldn't go over the head of a 10th-grader, despite moments where one suspects a lycée grammar book was consulted. Do people in real life really say, "Carry on with your preposterous conversation," as Marc does here?

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