Working from Christopher Hampton's translation, director Katie Chidester puts the characters under a microscope, mercilessly exposing their most minute flaws. When Serge (Greg Ungar) makes a conspicuous purchase of an essentially white-on-white painting by trendy artist Antrios, he expects his two close friends, Marc (Mark Coyan) and Yvan (Ponzer Berkman), to be happy for him. Marc, however, robs him of his joy by ridiculing the monochromatic canvas as "a piece of shit" and deriding his friend for shelling out a small fortune. Marc also sends Yvan to visit Serge, ordering him to uphold his criticisms of their friend. Yvan goes, but after only a few minutes of gazing at the canvas and hearing Serge's effusive praise for it, he softens, returning to Marc and reporting that nothing is wrong with the painting, Serge's choice in buying it, or Serge himself as along as he is happy.
That argument forms the crux of "Art," which asks us to analyze whether friendship means supporting even the worst decisions of a friend or trying to change his or her behavior if you think the actions are self-destructive. Reza brilliantly shows that as the ongoing conversations and arguments of the three men gradually move away from the subject of the painting and toward more-personal issues of habits and character traits, their 15-year friendship is threatened.
The performances couldn't be more realistic and subtle. Ungar's Serge is a cerebral, refined aesthete who nevertheless will go to the mat to defend his beliefs in what constitutes a great work of art and what that art represents. Coyan's Marc is so combative and confrontational that when he deliberately tries to seem supportive and agreeable, he triggers immediate suspicion in Serge. The bald, heavyset Berkman is ideal as the needy, insecure Yvan, who has no firm opinions about anything and whose most fervent wishes are that he not be dragged into his friends' heated arguments and that they stop bickering and just get along. Their interactions are the stuff of great theater.
Chidester's direction finds the right tone for each scene, evoking our laughter even as she ratchets up the tension. Dèrf Yènnik's set design and Elisha L. Griego's lighting emphasize the nonthreatening blandness of any monochromatic color scheme, as Serge's apartment is essentially an ode to minimalism—and a tribute to white.
Presented by and at Hunger Artists Theatre Company, 699-A S. State College Blvd., Fullerton. July 6–29. Fri. and Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m. (No performance Sun., July 15; additional performance Thu., July 26, 8 p.m. (714) 680-6803 or www.hungerartists.com.