The current offering by Burning Coal Theatre Company is Yasmina Reza‘s Art, a three-man play about a triangle of friends and the result of one of them making what may be called a questionable acquisition in the form of a painting which, to the untrained eye, is a complete wash of white. The viewing and discussion of this work of art is the basis of the comedy, but what actually is stirred by this action is a three-gun assault on the group’s friendship. Tempers flare and everything from the buyer’s taste in art to his friend’s taste in women become fodder for this cannonade.

The painting is itself very much in evidence: a three-foot by four-foot frame looks very much like the artist has done nothing at all to a blank canvas. Upon further study, there seems to be a few indistinct lines on the painting, three in a downward slope above a baseline near the bottom of the work. The buyer, Serge (Preston Campbell), is pretty proud of it, saying that it is a seminal work by the artist Andreah, a widely-known name in contemporary modern art. His “best” friend, Marc (Byron Jennings), is himself a Classicist, but even so is enough of an art lover to make his opinion worth noting. But his reaction to Serge’s paying 200,000 francs (the original language of the play is French) for what looks like an un-started canvas is vehement. He spares no feelings in letting his friend know just how badly the work offends him.

The third corner in this triangle is Yvan (Juan Isler), who is somewhat out of his realm when it comes to the world of art. He is very much dismayed at the almost-violent confrontation between his two best buds. He is at first somewhat noncommittal in his reaction to Serge’s purchase, but he feels that, if the acquisition makes Serge happy, that’s good enough for him. He doesn’t understand – any more than Serge does – Marc’s vehement reaction to the painting, even after Marc himself tries to explain it to him. Yvan, in any case, has other things to worry about: his upcoming wedding and all the upheaval it has caused him, to be exact. His blushing bride has relations who are at loggerheads over various aspects of the upcoming nuptials, and their insistences are causing Yvan more than a little distress. He has, therefore, been looking forward, on this Friday night, to an outing with his friends to help distract him from these headaches.

Art is directed for Burning Coal by Ken Hinton, artistic director of the Agape Theatre Project. Hinton currently teaches theatre at NCCU and has extensive directing and acting credits on his resume. Hinton has directed Art with an eye toward making these characters both engaging and likeable, and he has succeeded admirably. In a play where the characters speak nearly as much to us as they do to each other, these traits are essential if we are to understand the relationship that ties these three to each other.

In bringing the three characters to life on stage, this trio of Triangle actors exceled at making us believe they are old friends who are just about to wreck a long-term relationship. Campbell and Jennings sparred with enthusiasm, each pointing out the other character’s shortcomings as an art critic. Isler did a particularly fine job as Yvan of balancing the heat and trying to intervene in what Yvan sees as a terrible injustice that threatens to end the trio, something that he holds dear. Isler’s portrayal of Yvan’s resulting histrionics was spot on and earned him a spontaneous round of applause opening night.

Art is played out on a simple set that serves as a living room to one or the other of our trio. Mostly, it is Serge’s place, where the painting resides. A sofa, an armchair, and a bar are the main pieces, with an easel upstage center to display the painting. Designer Joel Soren has created a sparsely decorated room, as befits a bachelor’s dwelling. Set and lights are both, thus, static – a simple set on which three fine Triangle actors can fence to their hearts’ content. 

All of the characters’ dust ups build to a head of steam that cannot be thwarted, and dissolution seems to be the looming result. But Serge is able to vent the situation by offering Marc a chance to do something that would cause any art lover, be he Classicist or Modernist, to cringe. And that offering might be just the thing to resolve an extremely tense situation. To Serge’s mind, the possible outcome is worth the risk. Can it prove to be the right thing? Come see Art to find out. Anything could happen.

Art continues through Sunday, February 13  at Burning Coal’s Murphey School theater. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.