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“Art” at Costa Mesa Playhouse

Ready to Unveil ‘Art’ – and Reveal Its Meaning


By Eric Marchese


The issue of what defines “art” has been a topic of discussion and debate for centuries. That subject is at the heart of Yasmina Reza’s 1994 play “Art,” which examines the corrosive effects of an enigmatic canvas upon the longtime friendships of three men, one of whom comes to own the rare painting in question.

It’s what Reza does with the dramatic material at hand that makes “Art” so compelling. Anyone who knows and loves the play should stop off at Costa Mesa Playhouse to see what director Jordana Oberman-Whitton and her cast have cooked up. The same can be said for those who have heard about “Art” but have yet to see it.

Reza’s incisive comedy uses the characters of three men who have been friends for 15 years to examine issues revolving around the intersection of art and friendship. What kick-starts the story is when Serge, played at CMP by Michael Serna, indulges his love affair with modern art by making the ultimate splurge: At considerable expense, he buys a large canvas that’s essentially completely white.

What gets the story going is how his two best friends react. Marc, played by Peter Hilton, is utterly baffled and essentially enraged, prompting heated debates with Serge over what, specifically, constitutes “art.”

From Left: Peter Hilton and Michael Serna (Photo by Josh Lewkowicz)

Struggling to maintain neutrality is Yvan. Played by Angel Correa, Yvan tries to please both friends and bring down the temperature, yet in doing so, he winds up caught in no-man’s land.

And so the focal question is this: Does a large white painting that has a few white streaks painted across its surface truly qualify as “art”? And if so, is it a great work of art, the product of a genius, or does it fail to rise to that level?

Oberman-Whitton characterizes the play beyond just the question of the definition of “art,” instead zeroing in on “what is friendship?”

Reza’s script, she said, is “a darkly funny examination of the tumultuous growing pains within a friendship,” and the discussions, debates and arguments among the three characters are alternately funny and vicious – often scathingly so.

The play “presents the beautiful and painful risks we accept any time we build a friendship – or any relationship for that matter. It resonates in each of our lives as we grow and change within our relationships.”

“At different points in our lives,” she said, “friendships find themselves at crossroads, some devastating and some seemingly mundane, but when taking a deeper dive, any fracture is a murky mess of love, heartbreak, betrayal and hope. This play explores when that splintering is confronted in a 15-year friendship.”

Though Oberman-Whitton hasn’t previously directed any of Reza’s works, she is clearly familiar with the playwright, and finds her themes resonant, from having worked with Hilton and Correa in CMP’s 2014 production of Reza’s scalding “God of Carnage,” which Serna directed. The same quartet again teamed up on CMP’s more recent production of “Dinner With Friends,” with Serna again directing.

From Left: Peter Hilton, Angel Correa and Michael Serna (Photo by Josh Lewkowicz)

This time around, it’s Oberman-Whitton at the helm, with Serna making a return to the boards. The director said that for Serna, the troupe’s artistic director, “Art” has been “a passion project” he has wanted to see at CMP for a while now. As such, she noted, “there wasn’t an official casting process for this production”; Serna, she said, “had the vision, and all the key players jumped at the opportunity,” yielding what she calls “a great reunion of talents.”

Serna isn’t just bringing his interpretation of the key role of Serge to CMP’s stage, as well as his overarching vision of the play itself; he has also created the scenic design. The production is lit by Sofia Duran-Kniep and has sound design by Jason Whitton (the director’s husband), with Nicholas Hirata as the costume consultant.

Oberman-Whitton said the talented Reza “has a way of taking often passed-over human experiences and exploring the depth of tensions that truly exist below the surface – so this project was an opportunity to reunite with a creative team that I adore on a script with which I was excited to sink my teeth into.”

As someone who is both an actor and a director, Oberman-Whitton said she is “drawn to the stunning truth in Reza’s work. She is an actor first and foremost, so her plays are beautifully character-driven.”

The director said that a large part of her working method involves spending “a good amount of time at the table discussing the depths of the characters and their relationships with my actors.”

“As we mine the twists and turns of the play, we can start focusing our attention on the story we are telling, and thus all of my production choices from there work to tell that story.”

From Left: Angel Correa and Peter HIlton (Photo by Josh Lewkowicz)

“If we’ve done our job, then our audience will experience the themes as they give over to the ride of ‘Art’. I think our greatest challenge as artists is to take that vulnerable ride for our audience.”

Playwright Reza, the director said, “is fiercely honest in her writing” and “finds humor and pathos in her text as the relationships unfold under a fiercely truthful lens.” Her works “age effortlessly as they are solely about the human experience. They explore easily identifiable moments in time for our audience” – so those planning to come to CMP have quite an experience in store.


Eric Marchese has written about numerous subjects for more than 39 years as a freelance and staff journalist at a wide variety of publications but is best known as a critic, feature writer and news reporter covering theatre and the arts throughout Orange County and beyond.



Costa Mesa Playhouse

661 Hamilton Drive, Costa Mesa

April 4th - 20th

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