Review: SF Playhouse Successfully Revives ‘Art’ In A Time of Plague (*****)

The cast of ‘Art’ at San Francisco Playhouse (from L to R): Johnny Moreno as Serge, Jomar Tagatac as Marc, and Bobak Bakhtiari as Yvan. Photo Credit: Jessica Palopoli.
Reviewed by a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle.

by Charles Kruger

Yasmina Reza’s popular play “Art,” first produced in 1994, seems an unlikely candidate to be repeatedly revived for over a quarter of a century. What could be so fascinating about a play based on this premise: a businessman shocks his two closest friends by dropping a couple of hundred thousand dollars on a modern minimalist painting consisting of what appears to be a plain white canvas with a few barely visible off-white lines? Then they talk and argue about it, obsessively.

As theatre lovers keep finding out, in Reza’s hands, there is a whole lot that is fascinating. The play is about friendship, and history, and art, and criticism, and intellect and a whole lot more. It explores the idea of “Art” from multiple angles: it is itself, of course, a work of art. Then there is the painting as an objective work of art. Then there is the meaning of art in each of the characters’ life. Then there is the art market and its absurdities. And of course, there is mortality: what survives us? Does art?

As the conversation deepens, it gets funnier and funnier. At first the ridiculousness of the art and the gullibility of the purchaser seems to be what is most important. But then, the characters’ encounter with the painting begins to have a significant impact on their lives and relationships: the sort of impact, perhaps, that we are supposed to get from a work of art? But what if it’s bad art? If it still has an impact, does that mean it is, after all, GOOD art?

In the end, of course, the play is about (like any good play) the people whose lives are explored in the given situation. And Reza explores deeply and humorously.

Bill English’s direction is outstanding. In an earlier SF Playhouse incarnation of this play, he performed as one of the characters, and his understanding of the material is obviously deep and thoroughly considered.

More than many plays, Reza’s “Art” is very well suited to the streaming format. Taking a filmic approach, English has utilized closeups to great effect, and the editing has allowed him to punch the comedy wonderfully well. This is a much funnier version of the play then I have seen before, with every bit of humor mined well.

Johnny Moreno, Jomar Tagatac and Bobak Bakhtiari are all wonderful actors, and they are working at their best in this production. The result is not film or television or a glorified ZOOM meeting: it’s theatre for sure and the simple set, tight staging, and expressive perfomances don’t let us forget it for one moment. These actors’ many fans in the SF theatre community should be especially pleased to see three of their favorites in closeup. It is great theatre, and a great acting lesson to boot.

Highly recommended!

“Art” is available for streaming through November 21st. For further information, click here.

Rating: ***** (For an explanation of TheatreStorm’s rating scale, click here.)

“Art” by Yasmina Reza. Translated by Christopher Hampton. Produced by SF Playhouse. Director: Bill English. 


Yvan: Bobak Bakhtiari. Serge: Johnny Moreno. Marc: Jomar Tagatac.

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