By Philip Pearce

WHEN THE ENGLISH VERSION of Yasmina Reza’s Art, starring Albert Finney, Tom Courtenay and Ken Stot, premiered in 1996, London Times reviewer Benedict Nightingale wrote that the play was “likely to become a minor classic.” It’s the kind of bubble of opening night enthusiasm a critic sometimes lives to regret. But twenty-two years later, it looks as if Nightingale had something.

It’s still drawing audiences here and abroad. Since seeing that 1996 London production in previews, I’ve watched five other Arts, including last year’s 21st anniversary revival at the Old Vic, and I have been excited and entertained every time. The current Listening Place Readers’ Theater version directed by Peter DeBono is no exception.

The main gallery at the Monterey Art Museum is an appropriate setting. It glitters (deliberately?) with ‘far out’ painting and sculpture pieces. The moment you take your seat you are confronted by an easel holding a 3 by 4 canvas that, to all intents and purposes, is dead white. It’s not part of a museum display; it’s the focal point of the play. Dermatologist Serge (Richard Boynton) has just bought it for the hefty sum of $200,000, insisting it’s a complex pattern of white and off-white paint diagonals if only you look closely enough. When he invites his best friend, a hearty aeronautical engineer named Marc (Ron Genauer), to view the new purchase, Marc squints his way around the canvas, snorts, laughs and calls it “a piece of shit.” He insists that Serge has just proved he’s being sucked into the pretentious world of pseudo-highbrow art phonies. Serge counters indignantly that Marc is a bombastic, ignorant philistine. The gloves are off. The white rectangle on the easel shakes the foundations of the two men’s long-time friendship and they soon draw in an anguished but amiable mutual friend named Yvan (Robert Colter) as an unwitting referee of their bickering.

What follows is one of the most searching and relentless explorations of three male characters in modern theater. Its shifts and surprises demand three top-flight acting talents. Director DeBono has cast three of the Monterey area’s best.

Genauer is superb as the sardonic Marc. It’s familiar territory; he played the role under DeBono’s direction in an MPC version in 2010. He catches the bluster and fury without missing the contrasting moments of self-doubt and penitence. Serge declares that nothing Marc does is more maddening than his condescending laughter and Genauer works through a wonderful repertoire of laughs to punctuate the roller coaster shifts in a collapsing relationship.

Richard Boynton is a delightful Serge, exploding into rages at each new indignity, responding in kind to Marc‘s jabs of contempt yet never losing the underlying boyish enthusiasm that motivates a hopeful novice art collector.

He and Genauer are such a waspish and opinionated pair that the script needs the insecure but ingratiating Yvan to counteract their fireworks. It’s the favorite role of most audiences. Yvan’s a decent lower class clodhopper who used to escape a dysfunctional extended family and a boring job by visits to a couple of guys who got along just fine until that 3 by 4 canvas showed up. His extended, hysterical description of several hours of horror he’s just spent in preparing himself and his kinfolk for his forthcoming disastrous marriage is, as always, a comic high point and show stopper.

He’s usually portrayed as a desperate, lovable mooncalf, but the focused and forceful Robert Colter makes him more of a desperate loveable fussbudget, and it works excellently.

Art is a character piece that depends less on stage activity than the kind of spoken wit and reflection that make for satisfying readers’ theater. But one thing needs repair. The climax of the play is significantly visual. On opening afternoon, much of what is happening was too far off and too blurred to have a full impact on the section of audience where I was sitting. Yvan, who grunts and sweats under an unpromising job in a stationery store, should probably be called in to help solve the problem.

The play will be performed at the Steinbeck Center, Salinas, on Saturday at 2 p.m., and again at the Monterey Art Museum Sunday at 1:30.