Perhaps it's a certain kind of straight woman's wet dream about heterosexual men: that they would actually spend hours heatedly discussing the vagaries of modern art, even as they sip Chardonnay and deeply probe their changing relationships. Yeah, that'll happen.
However unlikely the premise, playwright Yasmina Reza's Art, which won the 1998 Tony for Best Play and is now at Beck Center, has become something of a classic in the thoughtful-comedy genre. Set in France in pre-euro days, the dialogue (as translated by Christopher Hampton) centers around an all-white painting with barely perceptible diagonal white lines that the nouveau-riche Serge has purchased for 200,000 francs (at the time, around $40,000). Serge invites his old friend Marc to ogle and celebrate his new purchase, but after some rueful chin-rubbing, Marc declares the canvas nothing more than "a piece of white shit" and immediately begins to question his friendship with a man he now views as equally gullible and pretentious.
The third member of Reza's testosterone triangle is the rumpled and affable Yvan, a likable loser who works at a stationery store. Once he's dragged into this arch art flap, Yvan tries futilely to please each of his longtime buddies and becomes an indecisive tether ball, smashed between the icily defensive Serge ("Yvan thinks the painting is touching!") and the brutally aggressive Marc ("Yvan is a spineless ass-kisser!"). This competitive verbal jousting elicits plenty of laughs -- feeling at times like an upscale, slightly obscene version of Seinfeld -- but it also delves into deeper waters. The white painting emerges as an elegant metaphor for the often invisible elements of a viable friendship, especially the aspects of faith and trust. Does one confront a friend about a perceived poor decision? Or does he simply offer his support and move on? As the discussion develops, we discover that the traditional Marc was once Serge's mentor in things artistic, and Marc feels he's being usurped by the blandly offensive new artwork. Meanwhile all the desperately needy Yvan wants is temporary guys'-night-out shelter from his drama-queen fiancée and his meddling mother.
After a rather stiff beginning, the Beck cast does well with this intriguing material. As the eager-to-please shmoo Yvan, achingly believable Brian Zoldessy is a mass of flinches as he cowers under the onslaught from his comrades. His mid-play monologue regarding the agonies of his impending wedding, though a bit too one-note, is both funny and pathetic. Jeff Grover is sleek as Serge, always the cosmopolitan sophisticate -- even while drawing blood, when he attacks Marc about his personal relationships. Fighting some fluffed lines, Paul Floriano brings a vulnerable strength to the caustic Marc. Director Carol Dunne keeps the pace tight and the laughs copious, up to the mildly unpredictable ending.
While the debate over minimalist art is a bit passé, the issues raised in Art about what constitutes a true friendship are enduring -- certainly enough to fuel a rousing post-performance conversation while sipping, perhaps, a nice Pinot Grigio.