Starting With A Lie
by YVONNE GEORGINA PUIG
The fault lines bisecting friends are often so unforeseen as to be imperceptible. We recede from the ones we love unaware of our diminishing; day-to-day, choice-by-choice, perhaps even, purchase-by-purchase.
Yasmina Reza’s play “Art”, which premiered in Paris in 1994, and is currently on stage at East West Players through October 11th, traces the resentments among three friends, Marc (Bernard White), Serge (Francois Chau), and Yvan (Ryan Yu), to a single source—a painting. A simple object, laden with implications of taste and means, and potently divisive.
The play opens to Marc alone on the stage: “My friend Serge has bought a painting,” he says. “It’s a canvas about five feet by four; white. The background is white and if you screw up your eyes, you can make out some fine white diagonal lines. Serge is one of my oldest friends.”
Marc cannot believe that Serge would spend 200,000 francs on a white square. He calls the painting “shit.” Serge counters that Marc knows nothing about, and cannot understand, contemporary art. Marc is pained to witness his friend becoming the sort of person who uses the word “deconstruction” in earnest. Serge says Marc is bitter. Yvan is caught in the middle. The action shifts between Marc, Serge and Yvan’s respective apartments, as Marc struggles to come to terms with his friend’s purchase.
Much of the play’s comedy is in its use of art-snob nomenclature and Woody Allen-esque urban neuroses. But the theme is essentially tragic. Do we ever know our friends truly, or do we know them only in the light by which we choose to illuminate them? What if they stray?
Years ago, my closest childhood friend became “best friends” with a girl I considered a shallow phony. My annoyance was compounded by her devotion to the phrase “best friends,” which I found frivolous and girly. I thought, or wanted to believe, she was different, and our friendship has never fully recovered. To this day, I have trouble being friends with someone capable of being friends with a shallow phony, not to mention someone who persists in using the phrase “best friends,” which I still find grating. My resistance reveals as much about me as her tolerance reveals about her. The fact is, she chose the phony over me, and it hurts.
These things are happening all the time. In Reza’s rendering, friendships may be saved, but never purely. After an alternately hilarious and heartbreaking final scene in which even the hapless Yvan bubbles over with (earned) emotion, Serge allows Marc to draw on his painting. What he doesn’t mention is that the marker he gives him is washable. Marc draws a skier gliding down a slope, and believes that it’s permanent, and therefore that he is more important to Serge than the painting. And he is. But, Serge asks, “Was it right to start with a lie?”
It’s an open question, which is the point. This is a writer’s play, and while the actors excel in drawing out the pain and awkwardness of arguing with dear friends, the thanks fall to the words. There’s a moment, shortly after Yvan’s outburst, when the three of them are standing in Serge’s apartment, and they seem—on the page, and almost, on the stage—to understand that they are separate and flawed and human. A moment when Serge sees Marc, not as my friend Marc, but as Marc. And he hands him the marker.
An olive branch extended from the soil of deceit, or just plain reality? “Let’s be reasonable,” Serge says, “why am I being so absurdly virtuous?” Perhaps because, despite the lamentable fact that we are stuck forever being our insufficient selves, despite the insistence of our individual wills, we yearn to be all that our friends imagine us to be, to bathe in their light so to speak, and see ourselves reflected, and validated, in their satisfied expressions. They were right about us, so we were right about ourselves. “It represents a man who moves across a space,” Marc says of the painting in the play’s final moments, “then disappears.”