Yasmina Reza's two best-known plays -- "Art" and "God of Carnage" -- are both comedies about unpleasant, heated discussions among civilized and intelligent people.
They're both essentially comedies, both acclaimed and successful, but both with detractors.
"Art" is the first show of the season for Sarasota's Banyan Theater Company. It's a well-acted and handsome production that gets a lot more laughs out of Reza's script than some other productions have. It's compact, fast-paced and cleverly directed.
It revolves around three long-time male friends, all fairly affluent intellectuals. One of the three buys a painting, or rather a work of art. It's a just a plain white canvas. If you look really hard, he says, you can make out a few horizontal lines, maybe even a hint of color.
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He paid $200,000 for it. That infuriates one of his friends, who thinks the canvas is worthless. The third friend tries to keep the peace. He can pretty much see both sides.
The argument escalates and threatens to destroy the intimate friendship.
The Banyan production, like the script itself, is at its best early, when the laughs are at their peak. The cast -- Gary Marachek, Larry Alexander and Don Walker -- have great comic chemistry and perfect timing, and augment Reza's words with some delightful physical touches. Director Julian Olf described Marachek, Alexander and Walker together as a "well-oiled machine," and when you see them on stage you understand what he means.
The plays runs about 90 minutes and it's presented without intermission. And though there's no single moment of transition, there's a clear act one and act two. In the plays first half, the absurdity of the discussion makes for some very funny theater.
Later, though, the humor dries, the argument turns just plain ugly and the characters lose most of their charm as they analyze their friendship. Walker's character, the art buyer, still maintains a modicum of likability, and Alexander, whose character is the most affable of the three, is fun to watch all the way through, but Marachek's character goes from annoying to insufferable to cruel.
In the end, there's very much to like about the Banyan production, and the many theater-lovers who revere "Art" will revel in the performances. But people who aren't fans of the play to begin with might not be entirely won over. As strong as the production is, there's still something frustrating about Reza's script. When it stops being fun, you want it to have something substantial to say, but instead it just subjects you to people arguing about something that's not worth arguing about.
Details: Through 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 on Tuesday, 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.