“ART Isn’t Easy”*…But Act II Playhouse Mines The Laughs

by Ellen Wilson Dilks

Yasmina Reza’s 1994 comedy (translated by Christopher Hampton) is closing out the Ambler theatre’s successful 12th season.  Directed by Co-Artistic Director Bud Martin, the cast features Ian Merrill Peakes as Serge, Tony Braithwaite as Marc and Pete Pryor as Yvan. Between them, these three Philly favorites have garnered an amazing 39 Barrymore nominations—with 11 wins.  The fact that actors in the Philly theatre scene all know and support each other gives this cast an advantage from productions elsewhere.  They have shared stages together before, just not all three in the same production.  But there is a built in comfort level that adds tremendous verisimilitude to their portrayal of these 3 long-time friends.

Tony Braithwaite, Ian Merrill Peakes and Peter Pryor star in ART at Act II Playhouse in Ambler PA through June 5.

“Nothing beautiful was ever created through rational argument.”

The play’s plot centers around Marc’s very negative reaction to Serge having spent 200,000 francs on a white-on-white painting.  For some reason Marc takes this as an affront to what he thought he knew about Serge and their friendship.  As director Martin puts it “It’s like a guy getting engaged to a girl the friend doesn’t like.  There is this feeling of betrayal.”  What starts out as sniping continually escalates.  Yvan is put in the middle by both of them—who then get frustrated at Yvan’s lack of opinions.  Yvan falls back on platitudes from his shrink to try to diffuse the situation and Serge smugly refers to a book by Seneca.  Things almost come to blows before a surprising and poignant conclusion.

Tony Braithwaite is suitably priggish as Marc.  His shocked disgust at Serge’s extravagance is performed perfectly.  As much as the character annoys the heck out of you, Braithwaite makes him fun to watch.  He is a top-notch physical comedian—it was fun seeing him in a different type of role.  Ian Merrill Peakes has the toughest role in the piece, in my opinion.  Serge is a little more buttoned-down than the other two—and can at times seem superior.  Peakes adds some wonderfully comedic business when interacting with the painting and imbues the character with a warmth that gets the audience to like Serge in spite of the arrogance.  The most outrageous role of the piece is Yvan—and Pryor excels.  Poor Yvan is such a schlemiel and Pryor finds every nuance possible.  His description of his phone fight with his mother and the subsequent argument with his controlling fiancé is side-splitting.  Add to that the fact that all three play the silent moments beautifully—and there are several hilarious ones.

Dirk Durosette’s contemporary living room in shades of white and gray serves as the main room of all three characters apartments—a change of painting signifies locale for the viewer.  Marc has a very traditional Flemish landscape painting—a view of Carcassonne that he is inordinately proud of.  Yvan has what the other two describe as a “hotel painting.”  Reminiscent of Van Gogh’s sunflowers, we find out Yvan’s deceased father painted it.  The set color choices perfectly complement the whole “white painting” thing.  And it gives the actors a nice playing field.  James Leitner’s lighting cleverly puts the focus where it needs to be, with subtle shifts in mood.  Costumes are by Wade Laboissonniere and props are from Avista Custom Theatrical Services—jobs well done all around.  And David O’Connor has created a wonderfully adroit soundscape that adds some amusing “buttons” throughout.

Interestingly enough, during my research I found a quote from Yazmina Reza stating her plays are not comedies.  I can’t help but wonder: has she seen them?  I don’t think director Martin and his actors have gone against any of the intent in the piece as they have explored what’s important in friendships.  They have created a genuine production that is a laugh out loud 80 minutes of entertaining theatre.

(*from Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George.)

by Yasmina Reza
Directed by Bud Martin
May 10 – June 5, 2011
Act II Playhouse
56 E. Butler Avenue
Ambler, PA 19002
(215) 654-0200

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