Jenna Mate loves small casts. It allows her to work moment to moment with her actors — and easily coordinate field trips to the Museum of Modern Art.
Hours before their first read-through of Yasmina Reza’s critically acclaimed three-hander, “Art” — opening Thursday, April 25, at Guild Hall in East Hampton — the director gathered Edward Kassar, Joe Pallister and Sawyer Spielberg at the New York institution and gave them seemingly simple instructions.
They were to each find paintings that spoke to them, rather, to their respective characters — Serge, who acquires a white-on-white piece for $200,000, leaving Marc completely flabbergasted by his friend’s purchase, and Yvan, who is caught between the two.
“What better place to do a little dramaturgical work?” Mate recalled with a laugh.
The creative team toured the collection, navigating six floors of art galleries, each hunting for the perfect conversation pieces. And they quickly found them, Spielberg said.
“Naturally, as we were walking through the MoMA, we started to get into little debates about each painting. We were slowly getting into character,” he said. “Then, we found this one painting that was similar to the one referred to in the play, and we just stood there and looked at it for a while. It was a nice first entrance into this world.
“Right after that, we went and did a big read-through,” he continued. “It was like the beginning of this epic journey together.”
Celebrating its 25thanniversary, “Art” also marks the first play ever produced by Our Fabulous Variety Show — the brainchild of Anita Boyer and Kasia Klimiuk — in association with Nimbus Productions, founded by Pallister and Kassar.
“We like to challenge ourselves, and I think producing this play is taking us to a new level,” Klimiuk said of Our Fabulous Variety Show, adding, “The play choice was the decision of Joe and Eddie, but it’s a very interesting story that digs into the fabric of relationships and what art even means, which is something I am thinking about every single day as an artist, director and educator.”
With her boyfriend, Joe Pallister, working just a few feet away, Boyer settled onto their couch for her initial reading six months ago. A few pages in, she was on edge, either snorting with laughter or on the verge of tears, she said.
“I have had some confusing and unresolved experiences this past year and, I swear to you, that reading this play was worth its weight in therapy sessions,” Boyer said. “It’s so well defined what I experienced, but had not been able to articulate.
“My favorite line of the play, which I memorized immediately because it struck me to my core: ‘If I’m who I am because I am who I am, and if you’re who you are because you’re who you are then I’m who I am and you’re who you are. If, on the other hand I’m who I am because you’re who you are and if you’re who you are because I’m who I am, then I’m not who I am and you’re not who you are,’” she said. “I finished the rest of play and I just looked at Joe with tears in my eyes and I said, ‘Yep, this is the show.’”
Staged in the round, the experience for audience and cast alike is nothing short of intensely and immediately intimate, Spielberg explained, as the play should be — considering “Art” is not actually about art at all.
“To me, it’s less about the painting and it’s more about these three friends who are going through a rough spell, and they’re using this painting as a way to subconsciously expose all of their frustrations with each other,” he said. “I thought that was really clever. That, to me, spoke to me more. The more that we rehearse, the more we’re finding that it’s true. We’re finding a lot of moments together.”
Off stage, the three men hit it off immediately, Spielberg said, checking their egos at the door and embracing an honest relationship. Describing their dynamic as “electric,” Mate often sits back and laughs as the actors make playful jabs at one another — often mimicking Kassar’s thick New York accent — before rehearsal even begins.
“There’s an energy and a vitality that’s present at all times with them,” Mate said. “Watching them, and working with this play, has really made me think about groups of three. When you put three kids together on a play date or on the playground, you’re always going to have two against one, and not always in a bad way.
“But at all moments in this play, it’s always two ganging up on one. We’re playing a lot with those dynamics, that triangle idea, and how the friendship keeps shifting as each scene goes on — and who’s got the lowest status in each moment, and who’s got the highest status.”
Staging “Art” not only on the East End — where the juxtaposition between summer wealth and the year-round population is at an all-time high —but also amid art-packed galleries adds another level of contemplation and borderline poignancy, Mate noted.
“I also think it resonates with anybody, anywhere, beyond the East End,” she said. “We do still live in a world where what you own, or what you wear, or what you drive does still give you status. As we all mature, we’re making different choices in our friendships. Some friends are gonna make more money, some friends are gonna go off and value material things, some friends aren’t. Everybody can resonate with the idea of a friendship growing apart based on somebody gravitating toward something else, like a piece of art, like a car, like certain clothing or a handbag, and feeling that insecurity of, ‘Oh, if she owns that handbag, maybe that means we can’t be friends.’”
Reflecting on his own relationships, Spielberg has tapped into a rarely seen, quirky side of his personality to embody Yvan — a man who is in “a constant state of disappointment, but still manages to find hopefulness in the chaos,” he said.
“He’s extremely neurotic and he’s very wound up tight and he talks a lot. And I don’t feel I’m that way,” Spielberg said. “But there’s a physical goofy side to Yvan that I’m having a great time tapping into. I definitely have a goofy side to myself that only comes out with close, close, close friends, or it came out a lot more when I was younger. This character requires a lot of energy out of me, so I’ve had to come into rehearsal and make sure I’m well rested, and ready to be at a 10 for the entire day.”
In his desperation to keep their friendship alive, Yvan begins to discover his voice and delivers a dizzying, three-page monologue halfway through the play, which has occupied much of Spielberg’s rehearsal time, he said.
“I don’t think, as an actor, I’ve ever had a monologue this intense and this big,” he said. “It’s funny and it’s wild and some of it doesn’t make any sense and I’m curious to see if the audience understands what I’m talking about. It’s required me to be more articulate as an actor, and I’m really excited to take on this challenge. I’ve just been having a great time with this play. I don’t want it to end.”
When the final curtain does fall on May 5, Boyer and Klimiuk will dive back into programming for Our Fabulous Variety Show, which has defied pigeonholing over the past nine years. The co-founders initially rooted their theater company in arts education, but have kept it intentionally fluid and open to all possible endeavors, they said.
“We hope to do more of this. We have some exciting projects and opportunities on the horizon,” Klimiuk said. “Whatever we are doing, it always feels like it’s the right thing happening at the right time. And everything happens for a reason — at least I like to think so. I don’t like boxes or labels, and I think it’s important that we can offer or provide a space for anything and everything performance related. And I’m excited for what the future holds after we present this play.”
Our Fabulous Variety Show and Nimbus Productions will present “Art,” a play by Yasmina Reza, on Thursday, April 25, at 7:30 p.m. at the John Drew Theater at Guild Hall, located at 158 Main Street in East Hampton. Additional performances will be held Thursday through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., and Sundays at 2 p.m., through May 5. Tickets are $28. For more information, visit ourfabulousvarietyshow.org.