By George Basler
Chenango River Theatre is continuing its season with the Tony Award-winning play Art, which raises a series of questions about the worth of modern art and the fragile nature of friendship. The production, which open Friday (Aug. 26) and runs through Sept. 18, features Zach Curtis, CRT’s producing artistic director, in one of the play’s three roles. The other actors -– Drew Kahl and Joey Sponseller — are returning to CRT after appearing last season in the play Ben Butler.
Art was originally a French-language play by Yasmina Reza that premiered in Paris in 1994. The English language adaptation, by Christopher Hampton, was a major hit when it opened in London’s West End and on Broadway. Curtis said he was looking for a good comedy to be part of CRT’s season, and Art fits the bill.
“I’d done it 10 or 12 years ago and found it so darn clever and funny,” he said.
The play focuses on three long-time friends — Serge (Curtis), Marc (Kahl) and Yvan (Sponseller) — whose friendship is tested when Serge buys a completely white painting for an exorbitant amount of money. Serge proudly displays his acquisition to Marc who, rather than seconding his enthusiasm, sarcastically dismisses the painting as a piece of junk. Yvan tries to mediate the disagreement but ends up antagonizing both men.
As Art progresses, the back and forth over the painting becomes a catalyst for magnifying hidden strains in the three men’s relationship.
Directing the CRT production is Craig Johnson, who is making his debut at the theater. The Minneapolis-based director, actor and teacher has been connected with more than 300 productions over the past 40 years.
Johnson calls Art “a comedy with serious undertones.” On the surface, the play is about modern art, but, “underneath, it’s a story of long-term friendship and what happens when someone changes, and how that impacts both friends and the group dynamic,” he said.
What attracted him to the play is the “simplicity and elegance” of Reza’s script, Johnson added. The playwright pared down the action to “the essential elements of theater,” he said. There are no scene changes or costume changes, just dialogues and monologues involving the three characters.
“The play is perfect for an intimate space like this (the Chenango River Theatre). The audience can feel like they’re in the apartment, in the living room, with these three guys,” Johnson said.
Both Kahl and Sponseller have strong resumes. Kahl’s regional acting credits include productions with Franklin Stage Company, Everyman Theatre, Roundhouse Theatre, Arena Stage and Rep Stage. He teaches acting, directing and voice production at SUNY Oneonta, where he currently serves as chair of the theater department.
Sponseller is a New York City-based actor who earned an MFA in Acting from Rutgers University. His credits include studying at Shakespeare’s Globe in London and performing as a company member at Rocky Mountain Repertory Theatre in Colorado. He’s also a teaching artist in New York City public schools.
Much of the play’s humor stems from the fact that the characters have “a certain pretentiousness” and are arguing passionately about such a seemingly small matter, Sponseller said.
“The stakes are so high for (the characters) that the audience just has to laugh. It’s just ridiculous, the talk about a piece of art and the turmoil it puts on their friendships,” he added.
Art is a strong play that doesn’t get produced as much as it should, Curtis said. While noting some audience members may find the play too esoteric — “too heady,” as he put it –he believes part of the excitement of theater is prompting differences of opinions.
Art has dramatic moments dealing with the dynamics of male friendship, he said, noting: “You don’t see a lot of plays about friends behaving badly to each other.” At its core, though, he added, “It’s a hysterically funny play.”
IF YOU GO: Art will be performed Aug. 26-Sept. 18 at the Chenango River Theatre, 991 NY-12, Greene. Thursday-Saturday performances are at 7:30 p.m.; Sunday performances are at 2 p.m. Single tickets are $27. The fastest way to purchase tickets on the theater’s website, chenangorivertheatre.org. For phone orders, there is a 24-hour reservation line (607-656-8499). It may take two to three days to process phone orders.
All performances begin on time with no late seating.
Free tickets for high school and college students are available at all evening performances. Email email@example.com for reservations, which are required for the free ticket program