If you glance at South Park Theatre's 2008 season, most of it will look like familiar community-theater fare: Harvey, A Tuna Christmas and something called Golf: The Musical. Across the country, these very same shows are slated for thousands of suburban theaters. But if the plays enlist a new batch of high school drama students, and they keep grandparents happy, why change a thing?
Art, by Yasmina Raza, is a different story. It's a comedy without obvious punchlines. The characters discuss modernism and friendship. They are French, but unlike most Frenchmen of community theater, they wear neither twirled mustaches nor berets. For all its cerebral discussions, Art is a very realistic piece. It is, compared to The Nerd and Anna's Brooklyn Promise, a transcendent experience.
At the center of Art is a ridiculous painting -- white paint dabbed on a white canvas. Really, a non-painting, but Serge, an amateur collector, splurges on it, for the hefty sum of 200,000 francs. Then he invites his friend Marc over to admire it. But Marc (perhaps even "friend" is a strong word) laughs at the featureless canvas, Serge is insulted, and they begin a downward spiral of rhetorical warfare.
This would be a talking-heads drama if not for Yvan, their neurotic friend, who becomes a reluctant diplomat during their spats. Here, Yvan is played by Andy Cornelius, who is an expert at comical fretting. Yvan is the clown, but he's also the play's necessary third dimension, and Cornelius squeezes laughter and insight out of every worried glance.
This is not an easy script, but director Demetria Marsh understands her material well. As Serge and Marc, Rob Gorman and Jay Smith have mastered the European snub, calmly affronting each other with crueler and crueler observations. In the end, the Art trio is revealed for what they are: middle-aged, middle-class middlemen, trying to improve themselves with silly paintings and superior attitudes, too stubborn and arrogant to feel anything real. We hear them argue about "concept art" versus "motel paintings," but the real topic is their humanity, their means of perceiving the world.
South Park Theatre has taken a risk and reaped some great rewards; themes like this do not exist in Nunsense II. This Art is, in fact, true to its name.
Art continues through Oct. 14. South Park Theatre, Corrigan Drive and Brownsville Road, South Park. 412-831-8552 or www.southparktheatre.com