A Frenchman said, "I think, therefore I am," which goes to show the existential primacy of thinking in the French character. Where else could so much cogitative energy go into the deliberation of such chicken-or-egg quibbles as, "Does existence precede essence?" except in a nation where the pondering of fine intellectual points seems more prevalent than here in pragmatic America? The French also honed farce into a fine art. And those two Gallic strains—sidesplitting humor and hairsplitting argument—combine in this Yasmina Reza play (translated from French by Christopher Hampton), creating the hilarious hybrid of a cerebral farce in which a clash of ideas (about the art of painting) provokes the mounting confusion and conflict upon which farce thrives.
As in all classic farces, there must be one hapless character in the eye of the comedic storm. Here that person is Yvan, played with wonderful nebbishy manic desperation by Joe Regalbuto. Yvan is the least intellectual of the play's odd trio of male friends. The other two, Marc (Robert Westenberg) and Serge (Norman Snow), are engaged in wordy, perfervid strife over the worth and significance of a white-on-white abstract painting that Serge has purchased at a great price. Yvan is sort of an Unlucky Pierre—always in the middle, doomed to be caught between contending forces. He arrives on the scene, having just fled an embroilment between his mother and his fiancée (uproariously described in a speech that, delivered with superb staccato timing by Regalbuto, perfectly introduces and characterizes Yvan), only to find himself mired in Marc and Serge's aesthetic donnybrook.
Westenberg's wry, deliberate, sarcastic Marc and Snow's wide-eyed, hyper, enthusiastic Serge are tall, lean, athletical, square-jawed men (in some contrast to Regalbuto's roundish, plumpish, softer Yvan), and there is always the dangerous hint their intense mental conflict could turn physical. And when inevitably it does, where else does Yvan find himself than smack between his flailing pair of pals?
It is all most satisfyingly absurd and directed with clarity, economy, and at a good clip by Joseph Hardy. Kent Dorsey did the lighting design, Karl Mansfield the sound, and costumer Clare Henkel came up with the unobtrusive and subtly suitable casual guy-wear. Robin Sanford Robert's witty scenic design is a big part of the basic jest: Each of the characters' three apartments are identical (are, in fact, the same setting), the only difference being the painting hanging on the wall over the sofa, which changes to a cubist abstract for Serge, a traditional landscape for Marc, and a "motel painting" for Yvan, done by his father.
"Art," presented by the Globe Theatres in the Old Globe Theatre, Balboa Park, San Diego. Tues.-Fri. 8 p.m., Sat. 2 & 8 p.m., Sun. 2 & 7 p.m. May 26-July 1. $35-45. (619) 239-2255.