- Photo by Scott Suchman.
What's a more egregious way to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars: On a plain white canvas, or on a live human being, posing in a glass tank with a feather boa and candy wrappers? That's a question D.C. theatergoers can decide for themselves this month between two productions that examine the value of art, and the friendships that suffer when those values are considered.
The white canvas is the centerpiece of Art, Yasmina Reza's play at Signature Theatre about three friends who question their relationship to each other when Serge (John Lescault), a wealthy dermatologist, buys an expensive work of art: An all-white canvas by Andrios (a Cy Twombly stand-in). He pays 200,000 Francs for it, which appalls his friend, Marc (Mitchell Hebert). Do you hate, it, Serge asks Marc? "You can't hate what's invisible. You can't hate nothing," says Serge. It's a joke at first, but the painting becomes a sticking point in their friendship: How can either be friends with someone who shares such different values, after this? A third friend brought in to mediate is no use: Yvan (Michael Russotto) attempts to placate the pair, but it only enrages them further.
- Photo by Stan Barouh
Three friends are also pitted against each other after an expensive piece of art is purchased in Factory 449's production of Magnificent Waste, by Caridad Svich, but the value of the art doesn't have much to do with it: They're all vapid, fame-hungry celebrities, and their friendship is based on little else. Artist Lizzie B (Lisa Hodsoll) becomes a sensation after she sells a work called "Zone One," which consists of an androgynous young man (James. T Majewski) sitting in a glass case, wearing a feather boa and sitting atop a bed of Good 'n' Plenty wrappers. Before Lizzie is revealed to be the artist of the work, she and Arden (Stephen F. Schmidt), a collector are discussing it in the gallery. "How much?" she asks. "That's not the question," says Arden. "I thought that was the only question," says Lizzie. "Not when it comes to art," says Arden. He buys the boy in the box for $300,000, making Lizzie a bigger star than her two famous friends, Mindy Darling (Sarah Strasser), an actress, and Bret Carver (Tony Villa), a TV personality, but they're all too eager to torpedo her burgeoning career as a "shock artist."
The purchase of expensive art, in both instances, is just catalyst for revealing each character's superficiality. Arden purchases "Zone One" not because he appreciates the concept, but because he's fallen in love with the beautiful boy in the box. Serge buys the Andrios because he likes it (it suits his minimalist home's decor, rendered nicely by James Kronzer) but also because it's a display of his wealth; not to mention, an investment. Marc, whose tastes skew more traditional, heaps judgment upon him, and Yvan's response, "if it makes him happy," is the most sensible of all. Why shouldn't Marc and Arden shouldn't spend the money on a work of art that each enjoys, for a price that they can afford and that the market demands, even if their reasons for liking it are shallow? Svich disagrees, but Reza withholds judgment.
Svich switches the action between Lizzie and the collector, and Lizzie and her friends, who are best described by the title of the play. They're the most vapid of celebrities, with Carver hosting the other two on his show and promptly throwing them under the bus with embarrassing secrets, TMZ-style. But Svich's examination of the cult of celebrity is far too heavy-handed, and treads a well-worn path. Rich people sure do a lot of drugs and lead empty, meaningless lives, and that is Bad For America, we know! Her references to fashion are dated and her comparisons to art are inaccurate (calling Lizzie's work a Jeff Koons rip-off makes me wonder if the playwright has even Googled Koons' work), giving the play the posturing of an outsider criticizing a world she may not entirely understand. Her examination of the superficiality of the art and media worlds is, itself, superficial.
But when she's not moralizing about drugs and wealth and celebrity, Svich is at her best when examining a timeless topic in art: The Gaze. How do we look at art, and what happens when it's able to look back at us, as "Phase One" does? Svich only scrapes the surface of some of the weightiest questions her play raises: Can an artist sell another human being as art, and if so, what kind of autonomy can that art object retain? When her art object is also a performer, how much can the artist claim the work as her own creation? "Art shouldn't speak," says Arden. "Shouldn't speak or shouldn't talk back?" says Lizzie. Majewski plays the young man as part passive object, part assertive performance artist, absorbing and returning their stares with equal intensity.
There's no gaze reflected back from a rectangle of white, but to save their friendship, Marc tries to see something in Serge's painting, nevertheless. And in it, he realizes an aphorism of Lizzie's: "Art is an illusion you give yourself to recognize the truth." In the all-white Andrios, emptiness is only an illusion. In the eyes of both Lizzie and the young man in the box, the illusion is depth.