In a quiet corner of Downtown Raleigh in the Gaddy-Goodwin Teaching Theatre, three men in a play tested their friendship and sparked heated debates about a blank canvas – but in the most hilarious sort of way! Raleigh Little Theatre’s production of Art, which opened Friday night, satirizes the meaning of “art” and wittily examines the dynamics of friendship, all while making the audience try to contain side-splitting laughter.

Director Jesse R. Gephart led this fast-paced interpretation of Yasmina Reza’s play, dramatizing the evolution of a friendship after one party’s “incredibly stupid” decision of purchasing what is in effect a pure white painting. Gephart was chosen to direct this play by esteemed former RLT Artistic Director Haskell Fitz-Simons, who passed away earlier this year and will be honored this season. Translated by Christopher Hampton, this French play debuted in 1994 and its original performance won the Molière Award for Best Play, Best Production, and Best Author. Art also won the Tony for Best Play after opening on Broadway in 1998.

RLT’s opening night performance, with Mark Phialas as Marc, Chris Brown as Serge, and Kevin Leonard as Yvan, held the play’s reputation high. The three characters are drastically different and were represented well: Marc, a haughty “mentor” who is disappointed by Serge’s love of contemporary art; Serge, a well-spoken and newly established connoisseur; and Yvan, the spastic young groom wrapped up in his own wedding-planning woes. Phialas succinctly introduces the plot and the main points of conflict, often breaking into temper tantrums sparked by Brown’s character, who remains queerly placid and unresponsive to his friend’s feelings. Meanwhile, Leonard delivered several riotous monologues while barely stopping for breath that perfectly embodied Yvan’s hysterics, and moved the audience to applaud.

The attention to detail in the acting was matched by Gephart’s blocking choices, making the action readily visible to all audience members on the unique thrust stage. The set design, created by Thomas Mauney, was also something to behold; the set represented three fully furnished apartments – carpet included – and were delineated by three different pieces of art that described the three main characters. The one drawback to the thrust stage was the nontraditional use of entrances the actors used. Marc’s entrances and exits carrying the 5’x4’ canvas ranged on dangerously close to hitting audience members in the shins.

Art presents a deep look inside what ties friends together and how that relationship can change over time. These friends transition back and forth between best friends, polite acquaintances, and complete strangers. Cleverly hidden by wordplay and sharp retorts, the moral of the story is pointed out by Yvan through the words of his psychiatrist – and sharply dismissed by audience laughter and outright dismissal by his friends. This “apocalypse because of a white square” is delightfully callous. It features strong language and may not be suitable for all children, but adults should definitely give it a look.

A wine and cheese reception immediately followed the opening night performance, giving the audience a chance to meet the cast and celebrate a successful opening night – as well as discuss whether a blank canvas really should be considered “art.” The debate will continue: Raleigh Little Theatre will be partnering with North Carolina Museum of Art Contemporaries on September 26 to host a Wine Tasting and Show for Young Professionals beginning at 6:30 with a social on the patio before the 8:00 showing of Art.

Art continues through Sunday, September 29. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.