Talking ART, with Judd Hirsch

Emmy and Tony winner Judd Hirsch comes to Long Beach Island to direct AND star in ART, the celebrated ensemble piece on life, bromance and, you know, ART…

A “piece of white shit” — that’s what the character named Marc calls the oversized, white-on-white painting that his friend Serge has just spent 75 grand to acquire.

In Art — the 1994 black comedy by French playwright Yasmina Reza — that curt comment sets off an escalating series of arguments between the two on the nature of male bonding, loyalty, independence, and manages to place milquetoasty mutual friend Yvan in the middle of a delicately balanced (but disintegrating) buddy relationship.

It’s a sharply written play, originally performed in French and subsequently done in a translation (by Christopher Hampton) that scored successful runs on London’s West End and on Broadway, where it won the Tony as best play of the year for 1998. It’s been staged many different times, in both community and professional productions, and with many different types of actors in the all-male ensemble. And beginning July 20, it makes its way to the stage of the Long Beach Island landmark Surflight Theatre for fifteen performances.

All well and fine, and an intriguing change of pace for the venerable venue that very nearly took its final curtain call last year. But what truly piques the interest, here in the inaugural season of Producing Artistic Director Roy Miller and Executive Producer Timothy Laczynski, is the announcement of one Judd Hirsch as both co-star and director.

You know, Judd Hirsch — double Emmy winner for Taxi; Tony awards for Conversations with My Father and I’m Not Rappaport. Judd Hirsch from Dear John and Ordinary People and Numb3rs and Independence Day. You know, Judd Hirsch.

In addition to all that, the celebrated actor has a real history with Art as well — from his tenure in the 1990s Broadway run (where he appeared with Joe Morton and George Wendt), to an engagement in London’s West End and numerous touring excursions all over the map. For this Beach Haven bagatelle, Hirsch will reprise his past role as Marc alongside Danton Stone as Yvan, and John Procaccino (who’s essayed each of the play’s three parts at one time or another) as Serge. It’s a reunion as well for Hirsch and Surflight’s Miller, who produced the 2002 Broadway revival of Rappaport in which Hirsch starred.

Judd Hirsch caught us by surprise, in a cell phone conversation on Art and Art that came as we were outside,  reviewing the finer points of recycling pick-up days with our landlord.

Mark Blum, John Procaccino and Judd Hirsch in a previous production of ART. Hirsch and Procaccino reprise their roles in the Surflight Theatre staging directed by Hirsch.

Wow, Judd Hirsch! Thanks for calling in…I just realized not more than 30 minutes ago that I’m interviewing the director of this show in addition to the lead actor..I’m assuming here you’re reprising the role of Marc. I know you go way back with this play, but have you directed any other productions, and is this engagement part of a multiple-city jaunt?

I directed it at the Paper Mill Playhouse; up in Ogunquit, Maine, and in upstate New York. And I’m always playing Marc…I started in 1998 on Broadway, and I took over in England, with an all-American cast.

It’s my first time with this cast. I’ve worked with John Procaccino…in fact, he’s played every part in this show at one time or another…but I never worked with Danny Stone before. There are no future plans for this particular production; it was put together specifically for Surflight.

ART, to me, is an interesting play in that some people look at it as an outright comedy, whereas others mine it more for its dramatic themes…it’s a subjective thing that almost echoes the whole conflict within the script; a canvas onto which various actors, directors and audiences project what they think it should be…

I’m trying to refine it to the point where you look at it seriously. Reza won an award for this show in France, for bet comedy of the year — and she was insulted; she’d rather have won for Best Play. Now, the worse these guys get with each other, the more the comedy comes from that. I mean, they go through all of this, all because of a white painting…

It’s also interesting in that the characters are seldom presented in an age-specific way…I’ve seen productions of this show in which none of the actors were much older than 30, and then there are others…well, you yourself are, ahem, 39…

The show’s almost 39 years old! There’s no constructed picture of anything, as far as the ages of the characters, but really, this shouldn’t be done by 30 year olds.These are middle-aged guys; they’re going through a middle-aged crisis…one of them’s getting married, long after the age when you would have thought he should have been married.

Do you think the situations would resonate in the same way if we were watching a more blue-collar bunch of dudes setting each other off over, I don’t know, a borrowed lawn mower, or the last beer in the fridge…

I don’t think it would work that way. It IS about Art, and Art’s effect on these guys who formed a friendship way back when. If anything, the audience should be wondering just what exactly these guys saw in each other!

You don’t have to be blue collar, white collar, to ask these questions. But it really is about their own heads; their values about Modern Art.

Stepping outside the character from the play, what are your own feelings about Modern Art?

What we call Modern Art really didn’t exist anytime before 1905. Before that, guys like Van Gogh, Cezanne, brought something to the actual picture…they didn’t destroy the picture, the landscape, the people. What they were doing was a new way of looking at what paint could do. Modern art was not created for the same reason. It was more of a movement.

But a movement that didn’t necessarily encompass Cezanne or Van Gogh? Those guys surely kickstarted their fair share of art-based arguments back in the day.

There’s no comparison between now and that era. We’ve all but wiped out the idea that a painting even has to be about paint.

You could make the argument that ever since photography came along, a painting doesn’t have to really represent anything at all. A couple of centuries ago, when pretty much everyone’s life was nasty, brutish and short as they say, art was photography, art was godliness, art was pretty much the only real exposure to beauty you were gonna get. 

I’ve gone to the Uffizi in Italy; one of the world’s oldest and greatest museums…and I was bored. To me, it’s all about one thing: Jesus Christ. There are about 60 to 70 images of Jesus, the resurrection, the crucifixion, in reds and yellows and blues. You can get totally bored walking through it.

The question is, why would a particular painting hang in a museum? Somebody supposedly knows more about the answer to that than we do.

These days the question of why such-and-such a thing is in a museum might have more to do with the art dealers, gallery owners or the auction house.

It’s not the same as buying at auction, where these are all well known quantities, and you’re paying a million-five with an eye toward selling it later on. There are still questions, and they’re addressed in the play, that go beyond just looking at art as an investment.

This play is about a guy who started looking at paintings for the first time. He’s an attempted collector who’s paid a lot of money for something that may not be worth crap in the long run. But he has his reasons, and he kind of hopes that his friend sees why.

Just like the actors, and the playwright and the director hope to make their case to the audience.

Rather than explaining things, I’d rather have the audience think for themselves about what they saw. I think that the audience in this beach community will be ready to think about this show. And I think that this is the sort of show that can really take this theater to the next level.

Art goes up for two performances (at 2pm and 8pm) on July 20 and 21; plays at 8pm on July 22 and 23; and continues with a mix of matinee and evening performances between July 24 and 31. Take it here for tickets ($31 – $49) and schedule details.


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