Changing the sex of the characters in the workinggirls productions presentation of ART, the Yasmina Reza play that swept the 1998 awards season (Tony, New York Drama Critics’ Circle and Evening Standard awards, to name a few) makes the dialogue more brittle somehow. The play, which shows how a simple artwork purchase can dismember a friendship as conversations question what should be valued, transforms into a mean girls reality show: Real Women Debate Art.
The original Broadway cast included Alan Alda, Victor Garber and Alfred Molina, and went on to play 600 performances. This new version, directed by Michael Colby Jones, ran for a mere handful of shows and closed last week. Still, it’s worth mentioning because adding the female presence changes the drama, adding another element to the musings on long-term friendship the play usually provides. Certainly, friendship among women is as complex and messy as with men. And this version hints that amid the power of female bonding lies an underbelly of ugliness, moreso than in the original. The Broadway version focused on three friends: Serge (Garber), who purchases a modernistic, expensive painting that looks like a white canvas with a few wavering lines. Marc (Alda) as the friend who upsets the tranquility with his constant questioning on the wisdom of the sale, and Serge (Molina) who acts as the mediator. In the workinggirls adaptation the plot was similar with Serge becoming Sevrine (Christine Ann Sullivan), Marc morphing into Claire (Anna Pond) and the Molina role goes to Duvall O’Steen as Yvonne (Yvan in the original).
ART doesn’t just address the aesthetics question; it inquires how long-term friendships change as one-time cohorts deviate in their belief systems. Can a friendship last when the nature of it alters? And, can friends forgive each other for the string of unknown slights that follows us as the years pass by? The 90-minute satire worked perfectly in the tight, sparse space in The Alchemical Theatre Laboratory that basically turned a small couch and two swivel chairs into rooms that prickled with the friends’ growing hostility. Yvonne, a nervous bride, was all rounded shoulders and furrowed brow as she squirmed into stories about battling relatives, only standing fully erect when she channeled her unsupportive mother—imitating her as if she were Katharine Hepburn smoking a cigarette. Yvonne’s helplessness piqued Claire and Sevrine as their animosity toward each other was temporarily alleviated through a joint barrage of abuse hurled at her. Sevrine, the intellectual, seemed placid and remote, even when angry, and provided a cool contrast to Claire, who was partial to bitter and breathless diatribes. In the original, the unraveling of the three friends did not seem so harsh; the words spoken in a male voice did not feel as unrelenting and cruel and I wonder if the glorification of female friendship makes the dismantling of it more tender. For the resonance of what could be lost seems tougher in this version, and because of this the resolution becomes less believable; It seems like too much has aired to find repair.