When Julian Olf retired to Sarasota about a year ago, he was planning on devoting his time entirely to playwriting.
So when Banyan Theater's Jerry Finn called and asked him if he wanted to direct a show this summer, Olf was trying to say no.
"But then he said 'It's 'Art' by Yasmina Reza,' " Olf said. "I stopped in mid-sentence and I found myself saying yes."
Olf's staging of Yasmina Reza's comedy opens the Banyan's season today in the Mertz Theatre at the FSU Center for the Performing Arts in Sarasota.
There weren't too many plays that would have coaxed Olf -- who spent his career teaching playwriting and directing at the University of Massachusetts -- back into directing. But "Art," which won the Tony and New York Drama Critics' Circle awards for Best Play and the Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Comedy in 1998 -- was one of them.
"Art" concerns three close friends, one of whom buys an expensive work of art. It's little more than a plain white canvas within a frame. The guy who bought it finds it profoundly moving; his friends, not so much. He's crushed by their reaction.
"The act of buying the painting upsets the balance of the relationship between the three men," Olf said. "The play examines what's the expectation of consideration that goes with a relationship. Honesty without compassion is cruelty."
Despite the seriousness of its themes, "Art" is essentially a comedy, and it's been described as a mix of Woody Allen and Moliere.
One of the remarkable aspects of the play, Olf said, is that it's one of the few well-known plays that analyzes the platonic friendship among three men -- and it was written by a woman. (Reza also wrote "God of Carnage," which was adapted into the Roman Polanski film "Carnage.")
"Art" has become one of the most frequently produced plays on stages all over the world, and it was one of the plays -- perhaps THE play -- that began the current trend of 90-minute plays presented without intermission.
The cast for the Banyan production is Gary Marachek as Marc, Larry Alexander as Yvan and Don Walker as Serge.
Olf had been unfamiliar with Banyan Theater before Finn approached him about directing this show, so he wasn't sure what to expect from the company's talent pool. But he said he couldn't be more impressed by the work of Marachek, Alexander and Walker.
"They work together beautifully," he said. "They're a well-oiled machine."
Details: June 25-July 12, Mertz Theatre at the FSU Center for the Performing Arts, 5555 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota. Show times 8 p.m. Wednesday-Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday. No performances on July 4. 2 p.m. matinee July 7. Tickets: $28.50. Information: 941-351-2808, banyantheatercompany.com.
Marty Clear, features writer/columnist, can be reached at 941-708-7919. Follow twitter.com/martinclear.