'Art' imitates life

'Art' imitates life

‘West Wing's’ Bradley Whitford contemplates the art of friendship

By Jana J. Monji 01/19/2012

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Ask Bradley Whitford about art and you’ll get an opinion not unlike Marc, the character he plays in the Pasadena Playhouse’s production of Yasmina Reza’s “Art,” opening Tuesday. 
 “The play is about art, about friendship. The friendship gets threatened by a full-disclosure discussion about a piece of contemporary art,” Whitford explains during a break in rehearsal. He agrees with his character Marc, especially when “I find myself ticked off when confronted by modern art. It’s like a monetized insider’s game calling itself art. It’s the highest aesthetic arrogance. It’s not about originality or content, and it’s not about being moved.” 
The original 1994 French language play was set in France, a country that takes fierce pride in its art history. The play, which won a Tony Award for Best Play, opened on Broadway in 1998 starring Alan Alda, Victor Garber and Alfred Molina.
“I saw it on Broadway and remember loving the play,” says Whitford, a longtime Pasadena resident.
During a recent rehearsal, nine-time Emmy Award-winning director David Lee, who previously directed “Can Can,” Light Up the Sky” and “Camelot” at the Playhouse, sits in front of the rehearsal stage, quietly watching the three actors work through different blockings, offering suggestions and commenting on what he feels works and does not. “When you’ve got a great play, you just hire the finest actors you can find and give them a road and let them walk down it,” Lee confides during a break.
In “Art,” three men have their 15-year friendship threatened — not by a woman, but by their love of art. Serge (Michael O’Keefe who played Fred on “Roseanne”) has dropped some serious cash on an all-white oil painting canvas, and Marc is incensed: This isn’t art. It’s pretension, he thunders. Poor Yvan (Roger Bart of ABC’s “Revenge”) is caught in the middle.
During lunch, Bart explains that the play is “really about three personalities and what they bring to friendship.”
Whitford is a fan of Reza, becoming “obsessed” with her “God of Carnage.” “I saw it four times. That’s unusual for me,” Whitford says. That 2006 play is about two sets of parents who meet to discuss how one couple’s child hurt the other’s, and the discussion devolves from a civilized chat to chaotic accusations.  
“Art,” Whitford explains, “is about art, about friendship. The friendship gets threatened by a full-disclosure discussion about a piece of contemporary art.”
Personally, Whitford wants to have a real emotional response to art, professing a fondness for Pasadena’s Norton Simon Museum, although he confesses “I have no collectible art. The most expensive piece I have,” he says, “is a signed sketch by Dr. Seuss.” 
Nonetheless, Whitford has been involved in real-life situations in which his opinions over high-priced pieces differed from those of acquaintances. “In those situations, I have silently disagreed,” he says. “We all know how personal and dangerous discussions about politics can be. So can a real discussion about art, and how you feel about art is an expression of your deepest values.”
Although Whitford recently made a high-profile guest appearance on “The Mentalist,” he’s perhaps best known as Josh Lyman, the deputy White House chief of staff on “The West Wing,” a role for which he won a 2001 Emmy Award for Best Supporting Actor.
Whitford has also been on Broadway, starring in the 2008 Tony Award-winning revival of “Boeing-Boeing,” a French comedy about a man juggling three fiancées who are flight attendants  In September 2010, Whitford starred in a one-night benefit reading performance of “8,” raising money for the American Foundation for Equal Rights. 
 During his time on “The West Wing,” Whitford wrote two episodes. He is currently working on two movie scripts. Comparing acting on film to performing on stage, Whitford says, “On film, you can’t lie. Plays make you audacious. You’re dealing with emotions and all the previous scenes set you up. Plays are also scarier, because you can’t mess up.”

 “Art” runs from Saturday through Feb. 19 at the Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena. Call (626) 356-7529 or pasadenaplayhouse.org.

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