The Playhouse's 'Art' Message

The brotherhood of film critics might toss me out of the clubhouse once they read the next paragraph. Personally, I think they'll applaud my good sense. I didn't watch the Oscars telecast March 25.

The brotherhood of film critics might toss me out of the clubhouse once they read the next paragraph. Personally, I think they'll applaud my good sense. I didn't watch the Oscars telecast March 25. Some rescheduled dinner plans made the evening unexpectedly Oscar-free. So I decided the night would be the perfect time for me to escape from Hollywood blockbusters and all things cinematic. At the last minute, my wife Pat and I caught the Playhouse in the Park's production of the Yasmina Reza's Art. Its slick satire of modernism, psychoanalysis and art appreciation continues to occupy my thoughts. I don't regret missing the Academy Awards for one minute.

Art came to the Playhouse with a slew of critical awards as its cachet. I regretted never having the chance to see Art on Broadway, where it won a 1998 Tony Award.

Now I'm glad I saw it in Cincinnati, with a Cincinnati audience.

I've come to accept the fact that my home for the past 10 years is a conservative Midwestern town with a decidedly conservative attitude toward new and challenging art. Art and artists remain at the forefront of many longstanding debates in Cincinnati. It's why Mapplethorpe continues to be such a familiar name in this city.

So a play like Art resonates here in ways that Broadway theater audiences would never understand. Art is extremely entertaining. In Cincinnati, beneath audience laughter, Art also tells an important message about tolerance.

Every picture tells a story, and Art's tale is very clever. Serge, a Parisian dermatologist, has bought a white-on-white painting by an acclaimed artist named Antrios for 200,000 francs. Serge shows the painting proudly to his friend Marc, who promptly derides it as "shit." More importantly, Marc derides his friend for foolishly wasting his money on a "blank" canvas.

The men turn to their mutual friend Yvan for support. But Yvan is unable to choose sides. He's not entirely sure what he thinks about Serge's expensive painting. All he knows is that the pair's aesthetic debate is tearing their friendship apart.

The audience around me laughed frequently at Reza's biting humor. The show's comic sparkle is undeniable.

But Art is also a substantial play. Its themes of artistic acceptance are well-written. Its adult characters are complex. Beneath its playful banter is an extended poke at psychoanalysis. It's a welcome slap for those of us who can't afford Freudian counseling these days.

Still, beyond the laughter, I wonder which character connects with most people in the audience? Do Playhouse crowds relate to Yvan's impartiality toward the white-on-white painting? Are local audiences rallying around Marc's opinion that such avant-garde work is shit? I would guess there's also a large number of people who would support Serge's acclaim for the challenging painting.

Without some type of goofy exit poll, it would be difficult to answer these questions with any certainty. But I'm convinced that Art generates a wide range of opinions among its audiences.

Watching Art reminded me that part of the Playhouse's success is that its audience goes beyond the art community faithful to working artists, arts buffs and the passionate "arteurs."

The audience I saw Sunday reached across all of Cincinnati. It was a diverse, multi-class and comprehensive array of people. That's not something I can say about crowds at the ballet, the opera or the symphony.

More importantly, the audience's laughter confirmed that Art was making an impact. Perhaps, after seeing Reza's play, some people will look at a white-on-white canvas differently.

That's the real-life impact that Art makes on its viewers, and it's the kind of substantial theater I like best. I only wish every Oscar night could be that enjoyable.

Contact steve ramos: [email protected]

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