Up Close and Personal with Modern “Art”

By Madison Friend

'ART' press picture 2
From left, Victor Shopov, Bob Mussett, and John Geoffrion.

It’s hard to look away from something that’s happening five feet from your face – and even harder when that something is as tight, tense, and showy as the Hub Theatre Company’s laugh-out-loud production of Yasmina Reza’s acclaimed Art Saturday night at First Church in Boston.

The play opens as the classically inclined Marc (played to sardonic perfection by John Geoffrion) describes a painting – an Antrios, to be precise, very expensive, very chic – recently purchased by his best friend Serge (the manically energetic Victor Shopov) for 200,000 Francs (modern-day US equivalent: many, many dollars). Serge’s unsanctioned purchase perturbs Marc, and Marc’s perturbation in turn perturbs Serge, so much so that the two feel the need to bring their other best friend, Ivan (in a show-stealing performance from Bob Mussett), in as a sort of mediator/punching bag.

Their disagreement turns fiercely personal, so that what begins as a rumination on the merits of modernist art quickly becomes an exploration of what it means to be friends, and how quickly that which binds us can unravel.

A key part of the Hub’s mission is to “remove barriers between theater and its audience” (a la their website). It’s the reason their plays (every show, every seat) are Pay-What-You-Can, and also the reason, I think, that staging the show within the confines of a fairly small room within the church worked so well. What could have been cramped and uncomfortable was instead immediate, taut; a physical proximity to the show that could have been off-putting resulted in a production thrilling, immersive, and undeniably dynamic.

Thrilling might not seem like the right word for an action-lite, three-man play, but the mechanically perfect timing of the cast and crew imbued the whole thing with a sense of always-moving-forward-ness that made an intermission-free 90 minutes seem like nothing. Megan Kinneen’s appropriately monastic set became unexpectedly dynamic paired with Christopher Bocchario’s ingenious lighting, neither of which would have worked without Geoffrion, Shopov, and Musset’s uncanny ability to pivot effortlessly from scene to scene (and from interaction to aside) without even leaving the stage.

Though scenes between Marc and Serge were at times too tense and smarmy, even for these notoriously tense and smarmy characters, Musset struck the perfect tone as Ivan, alternately pathetic and hilarious — or, more appropriately, hilariously pathetic. No matter what ridiculous action Ivan performed — searching for the cap of his felt-tip pen on hands and knees, decrying the pettiness of his fiancee and mother as he pulls furiously at his hair, the color in his face deepening to a dangerous red any time he was drawn into Marc and Serge’s fray — Musset played him with a certain exasperated dignity, an almost-but-not-quite-total-eagerness to diffuse, that made his performance the most delightful of the evening.

Wherever your artistic sensibilities lie (or if, like Marc, you don’t put much stock in artistic sensibility at all), there’s something deeply human and painfully familiar about the characters and their struggle to define themselves within the context of their friendships that resonates. The play poses two key questions to its audience, “What is friendship?” and “What is art?” The uber-accessible, audience-friendly Hub’s response seems to be, on both counts: “This is.”

Art is showing at First Church in Boston through 23 April.

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