Excerpted from: Review: ‘Art’ and ‘Saint Joan’

New York Times, 16 January 2017
By Matt Wolf

When Yasmina Reza’s play opened in London just over 20 years ago, the three-character dissection of a male friendship torn apart by the purchase of a painting struck many as a sustained comic caprice that didn’t dig especially deep. Ms. Reza may have insisted that her own play was fundamentally tragic, but audiences took it as a romp.

One wonders what those same onlookers might make of the current and very fine revival at the Old Vic Theater, which reunites the original director, Matthew Warchus, with a play that in 1998 transferred to Broadway, where it won that season’s Tony; Mr. Warchus received his own Tony nomination for staging the triangular tussle.

Mr. Warchus will return to New York this season as the director of the musical “Groundhog Day,” which premiered at the Old Vic last summer and tells of a man who finds himself reliving the same day over and over. But if there’s a lesson readily learned from this latest London venture, it’s that directors can reprise decades-old material without necessarily repeating themselves.

Much of the difference between “Art” then and now has to do with the casting, not least the presence in the oppositional driver’s seat this time out of the quietly fierce Paul Ritter as Marc, a Parisian who seems to take personal umbrage at the abstract canvas that has been bought by his buddy Serge (Rufus Sewell). Like an attack dog who finally has a long-desired piece of meat within his grasp, the actor brings a fangs-bared intensity to a roundelay of truth telling that moves on from differences in artistic perception to a takedown of the men’s choices of (unseen) partners and their own ways of being.

The first London cast of “Art” coupled Tom Courtenay (Serge) and Albert Finney (Marc), two longtime friends and colleagues whose established bonhomie left one doubtful that something as trivial as a painting could rock the boat. This time out, the painting seems instead to unlock residual currents of unrest between the men that are far from trivial. (The work of art itself, by the way, has risen in value over the years: Said to be worth around $40,000 or so at the play’s debut, it is now reported in Christopher Hampton’s English translation to have cost Serge more than double that.)

There’s a third character in this short play (90 minutes, no intermission): the perennial middleman Yvan, whom many viewers have regarded as the showiest of the three and is the one who tends to win its performers the most applause. (Ken Stott and Alfred Molina, the first to play Yvan in London and New York, respectively, were both lauded for their performances.) Oddly, the current Yvan, the comedian Tim Key, seems comparatively incidental to the proceedings, and not just because Mr. Key at the performance I attended didn’t seem entirely on top of his character’s defining and breathless soliloquy, which is as close as the nonmusical theater gets to a showstopper.
“Art,” directed by Matthew Warchus, is at the Old Vic Theater through Feb. 18. “Saint Joan,” directed by Josie Rourke, is at the Donmar Warehouse, through Feb. 18.

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