In the Eyes of the Beholder   

What is art?  I regularly take our dog on walks to a parkette where we pass a big round metal ball, probably as high as I am, painted black.  I don’t let the dog lift his leg as we go by, because the plaque next to it indicates it is a work of art called “Sphere”.  But I notice other dog walkers allow their dogs to do their business right there, so I guess they don’t think it’s art.

The question of what constitutes art is at the heart of the comedy, “Art”, on stage at The Grand Theatre in London. And if you can’t agree with your friends on this all-important question, it could be detrimental to your relationship.

Serge buys a painting by a popular and apparently trendy artist.  It is pure white paint on a white canvas, the size of half a door.  There are some almost invisible white diagonal lines on the white background.  Serge’s friend Marc comes to visit and when he learns that Serge paid €200,000, says it’s “shit”.  Naturally, this results in an argument and some strained feelings.  Both Serge and Marc visit their third friend on separate occasions to complain about the other’s lack of understanding.  Finally all three get together; arguments go in circles, hurtful and sometimes hilarious things are said, and the painting comes to a surprising end.

Written in French and first presented in Paris, “Art” was later translated into British English, proving popular at both London’s West End and Broadway.  To our North American ear, some of the dialogue sounds stilted and awkward due to the translation. As well, words like stone for weight, or talking about euros rather than dollars seems strange. Some common British jargon, such as “take the piss out of him”, meaning to mock or cruelly tease, sounds a bit odd, especially when the actors do not speak with British accents.

Sam Kalilieh as Serge gives us an interesting man, quite pleased to brag about his expensive work of art.  Michael Spencer-Davis is Marc, so firmly convinced that the painting is not art, nor is it worth the price Serge paid.  E. B. Smith plays Yvan, who tries to keep both friends happy.  Smith has perfect comedic timing, and delivers a hilarious, lengthy monologue on why he is late for a planned dinner.

It’s interesting to note that London, Ontario native Victor Garber played the role of Serge on Broadway, along with Allan Alda, of M*A*S*H fame and British-American actor Alfred Molina. The play proved popular, running for a year and a half on Broadway.

But I also think Jerry Seinfeld, Kramer and George Costanza would be perfect in the roles of the three friends.   Could the playwright have been influenced by the old Seinfeld TV show? The play premiered in 1994, in the middle of the successful Seinfeld run from 1989 to 1998. While I wonder if a French playwright would have been swayed by an American sit-com, maybe the coincidence just shows that people are the same the world over.  Like the TV show, this play may really be about nothing – the three characters talk in circles just like the Seinfeld characters: they sit around and come to no conclusions.  And despite the arguments and animosity, you know that they will remain friends.

Art continues at the Grand Theatre, London until March 11.  Tickets are available at the Grand box office at 672-8800 or 1-800-265-1593 or visit

Photo: Michael Spencer-Davis as Marc, Sam Kalilleh as Serge, and E. B. Smith as Yvan in Art.  Photo by Claus Andersen.

By Yasmina Reza
Translated by Christopher Hampton
Directed by Nigel Shawn Williams
Performed by Sam Kalilieh, E. B. Smith, Michael Spencer-Davis.
The Grand Theatre, London
February 21 to March 11, 2017
Reviewed by Mary Alderson


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