Arts & Events

‘Art’ at Alameda’s Altarena Playhouse

By Ken Bullock Special to the Planet
Wednesday January 21, 2009 - 07:01:00 PM

What do you do if your dear friend has forked out a bundle for a canvas you can only see as a phony work of art, not even decor, much less a picture?  

Triangulate that between three middle-aging men, gallery owners or collectors, and you get the drift of Yasmina Reza’s international hit of a few years back, Art, now onstage at Altarena Playhouse in Alameda. Stewart Lyle has directed the show in a deftly interactive way that eschews the usual way the Playhouse is configured for audience interaction—in-the-round—so the audience faces either a blank wall or the white-on-white nonobjectivity that “graces” it in the eyes of its apparently infatuated possessor, portrayed with low-key insecurity by Keith Jeffards. 

The little duets, the talking behind another’s back, which make up the vignettes of the play when the three friends aren’t all together, the air thick with oneupsmanship, supposedly take place in Paris, where Art premiered. In Christopher Hampton’s English adaptation, although the locale remains Parisian, there’s a definitely Anglo edge to the games these chums play.  

Hampton, best-known for his adaptation of Laclos’ epistolary novel masterpiece, Liaisons Dangereuses, made into the hit film Dangerous Liaisons, has a tendency to shift the Gallic into Brit gear, especially when engaging in the powerplay of relationships. It would be interesting to compare a production in the original French, which I would suspect to be a bit more modenized LaBiche or Feydeau than a burlesque of the Somerset Maugham “Problem Play.” 

But this production amiably slides around all that by making it as genially, as ambiguously American as My Dinner with Andre was onscreen—and similar, in that the audience audibly reacts to all the pontificating about art, the explosions of personal resentments, the cheap attacks that only friends can make on each other ... yet not in unison, but any and each spectator in his or her own particular time and manner. 

The trio onstage plays off of, even provokes that, with John Hale in particular as a feline, self-absorbed figurativist, fanning up the flames of left-handed compliment and back-handed derision. 

Matthew Lai is the go-between, the more “normal”—and passive-aggressive—friend, whom the others will even gang up on when they’re not at each other’s throats. 

Art has become a staple of community theaters (an inverted oxymoron?)—and this is good, funny community theater, a nice twist on the usual escapism of the stage. What better way to spend a weekend evening than to dine out with friends, then sit together to laugh at a trio of snotty buddies ready to gouge out each other’s eyes on the way to the restaurant? It’s delicious. And all because of Art! 



8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays through Feb. 7 at the Altarena Playhouse, 1409 High St., Alameda. $15-20.