THE STORY OF ART

Three men and a canvas: it doesn't sound like a hit play. But since it opened in the West End in 1996, `Art' has run and run, with five casts playing to packed houses. Will the same magic work on Broadway, where it opens tonight?
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The Independent Culture
THERE ARE a number of starry trios who won't be appearing in this evening's New York premiere of Art. Top of the list is Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Harvey Keitel. "It was Bobby and Al and Harvey," says the producer David Pugh, cheerfully, in his Shaftesbury Avenue office, the week of the New York previews. "And it all seemed very viable and possible." Kevin Spacey was in the frame. So were Stanley Tucci and Tony Shalhoub from Big Night. "Negotiations went on and on and on," says Pugh. "They wanted cars from the theatre. They'd only do six performances a week. They wanted seat prices to go to $100." The William Morris agency represent Tucci, Shalhoub and Alfred Molina. They appointed an agent to represent the three agents. "On top of that they all had managers. And West Coast agents. We were dealing with 11 people over three actors." The agents had their own agendas. The producer Scott Rudin rang Pugh to see how it was going. "I said, `Great, we've got Shalhoub, Tucci and Molina,' and he said, `David, Shalhoub's doing my movie with John Travolta. He signed six weeks ago."

To get the three they've actually got, director Matthew Warchus, playwright Yasmina Reza and Pugh sat at the Plaza Athene in Paris one Sunday from 11 in the morning till nine at night with a stack of videos - most of them Woody Allen films. The trio they came up with - Broadway's answer to Albert Finney, Tom Courtenay and Ken Stott - was Alan Alda, Victor Garber and Molina.

After tonight's 6.30pm performance at the 1000-seater Royale Theater on West 45th Street, Alda, Garber and Molina will head off - along with the show's co-producer Sean Connery - to the gallery arcade at Sotheby's on 72nd Street and York Avenue. Instead of the showbiz restaurant Sardi's, this is the venue for the first-night party. As early as 10pm - 3am our time - an e-mail will arrive from the New York Times with the review. The critic Ben Brantley will have seen the play earlier in the week. "For four or five days," says Pugh, "the sodding review is sitting there and we have to wait."

When the e-mail arrives, the producer reads it out. The first night in London was tough for Pugh and Warchus. "I was in one stall of the toilets in the dress circle, throwing up, and Matthew was in the next one." This evening will be worse. The London show cost pounds 250,000, the Broadway show costs $1.5 million, and its success is all down to one person's say-so.

If Brantley sides with this paper, the Times and the Daily and Sunday Telegraphs, he may think Art is "funny, sophisticated, stylish", "a minor classic", "cracking entertainment" and "exquisitely funny". If he sides with the Sunday Times, the Guardian, Independent and Spectator, he may think Art is "banal", "panders to popular prejudice", is "meringue masquerading as piquantly sauced meat", a "snob hit" and "coffee-table theatre of the worst sort".

If it's the latter, then shortly before returning to their hotel rooms at the Mansfield or the Edison, Pugh's 86 investors - who include an 82-year-old going to New York for the first time - will have experienced a unique social phenomenon. Why? Vincent Canby, the Times's Sunday critic, liked it in London. Clive Barnes of the New York Post liked it in London. But that means little over there. "It's all down to that one review," says Pugh. He witnessed what happens when he was an associate of the Broadway production of Frank McGuinness's Someone Who'll Watch Over Me. The producer Noel Pearson got the early edition first. "I saw his face and I just knew. He was distraught. I swear to you within 15 minutes, no more than that, the party was reduced from 200 people to 30. They just left, didn't even finish the food. That's New York."

THERE'S A contemporary French painter called Martin Barre who has 48 paintings in the permanent collection of the Pompidou Centre. A few years ago someone bought one of his pictures for 200,000 francs and showed it a friend. The friend laughed and laughed, then the man who had bought the painting laughed too, and they stayed friends. The person who had burst out laughing was the actress and playwright Yasmina Reza. She wondered what would have happened if her friend hadn't laughed too. Reza wrote a three-hander about that possibility. It has become arguably the most successful play of the Nineties.

The 38-year-old Reza has an international Jewish background. Her father was a Russian-born businessman who moved to France, her mother a Hungarian violinist. Reza studied drama at the University of Nanterre and the Jacques Lecoq school of acting. She translated Steven Berkoff's adaptation of Kafka's Metamorphosis for Roman Polanski and wrote two plays, Conversations apres une Enterrement and La Traversee de l'Hiver. Then two actors asked her for a play and she couldn't think of a subject until her friend bought the Barre.

Art opened at the Comedie des Champs Elysees in 1994 with Pierre Arditi, Fabrice Luchini and Pierre Vaneck. Sean Connery's wife, Micheline, went to see it and thought there was a movie role in it for her husband. Reza said no. First, Art had to have theatrical productions in London and New York. Connery bought the film rights, rang David Pugh and said "go see". Connery is an old friend of Pugh's business partner Michael Medwin, the actor who'd produced If ... and O Lucky Man. When Pugh set up his company Connery "bunged a bit in".

Pugh's French is `O' Level Grade C: so, on the Eurostar to Paris, he read a literal translation of Art. At the Champs Elysees that night, he understood about a third of the play. The audience was smart: "Gucci and Cartier." But he was smart too. "I could see there were three great parts." He thought of three actors who were mates. Like Connery, Albert Finney had bunged a bit in to Pugh's company. Finney was friends with Tom Courtenay and Michael Gambon. All three read the literal translation and said yes, provided someone could come up with a good English version. They talked about Harold Pinter and Martin Sherman. Reza chose Christopher Hampton. There's a school of thought that it's Hampton who raised Art to another level. When Reza accepted the Olivier Award for best comedy she joked that she thought she'd written a tragedy. Maybe Hampton, with his cool ironic wit, tweaked it as far as it could go. It's intriguing that the published script wasn't available for three weeks after the first night. Was English comedy battling it out with French tragedy? Hampton had taken 10 months to deliver his version, by which time Gambon had signed to do David Hare's Skylight in New York. Meanwhile, the literal translation had been couriered to Budapest where Jonathan Pryce was filming Evita. He read it, didn't laugh, and said no. Then Finney got a movie and Courtenay was left waiting.

When Pugh biked the script to Matthew Warchus he rang back after an hour and a half and said "yes". Neither Finney nor Courtenay "knew who he was". They rang Gambon, who had done Volpone with Warchus at the National, and Pugh hosted a Sunday lunch. The trouble was that Warchus had committed to doing The Alchemist at the National. Richard Eyre kindly let him go. He was "very gracious" says Pugh. "We sent a lot of flowers." Warchus brought his Alchemist team with him: the same team that, after Art, was to do a radical Hamlet at Stratford. The alchemy worked. Mark Thompson designed a spacious Parisian apartment, Gary Yershon composed a jazzy backing track, and Hugh Vanstone basked the picture in a coolly persuasive light.

Warchus brought in Ken Stott, whom he had directed in Death of a Salesman at the West Yorkshire Playhouse. The two stars said that Stott should get paid the same as they did (Stott repaid them by walking off with the reviews). Pugh knew the Criterion was too small and the Albery too big. It had to be Wyndham's. "You've got an intimacy but you can also make money." Minutes before the curtain went up on the first night - 15 October 1996 - the tanned Connery strolled up the stalls' aisle in a black polo neck greeting friends. He was about to kiss the reviewer from the Financial Times when he realised he didn't know her. Pugh and Warchus were in the toilets of the dress circle. In the stalls Hampton leant forward to critics sitting in the row in front and murmured the happy news: "90 minutes, no interval."

"WHO'S NEXT?" "Would you come forward?" "Can you stand here?" It's a Tuesday night in February: in box-office terms, one of the deadest moments of the year. Inside the tiny pale blue box office at Wyndham's, above a portrait of Maggie Smith, the clock says 7.55pm. The box-office assistant - with bright lipstick and Dolce e Gabbana rectangular glasses - is trying to get the people waiting for returns to stand in a orderly queue. In the last 18 months they have handed out tickets to Barbra Streisand, Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman (several times), Dustin Hoffman and - last week - Jack Nicholson. Tonight the celeb is Nigel from EastEnders. There are 760 seats and for this performance - counting standing room only - they sell 790. At 11am the show was 92 per cent sold out. They needed eight per cent on the door and with Wyndham's bang next to Leicester Square tube it has the best "doors" in the West End. At 7.59pm the bells are ringing and seats that were on hold are released. "Standing room only," says the assistant. A man pushes pounds 5 across the counter. "That'll do," he says, "I'm in."

Every night the company manager faxes the receipts through to the producer's office. She showed me the bottom line on the print-out. The columns went "100% 100% 100% 100%". Work the figures out. Nearly 800 people are paying an average of pounds 20 for eight performances a week. The producers are grossing more than a pounds 100,000 a week. That's on a show with three actors, one set and a painting. Or rather three paintings: one to draw on, one to replace the one that's drawn on, and one as a back-up. Less a blank canvas, more a blank cheque.

At every performance the deputy stage manager notes down the length of the show and the number of rounds of applause. The shortest show has been 86 minutes, the longest 90 minutes. There are five guaranteed rounds: 1) After Yvan's big speech about the wedding invitation. 2) When Yvan says the painting is shit. 3) When Marc draws a doodle on the canvas. 4) Near the end, when each character has had his monologue - possibly because the audience thinks it's that's it. 5) The end - when there are hoots, whistles and cheers. In the foyer, on the way out, members of the audience spot the house manager in his braided waistcoat and bow tie and go up. "It's a feelgood show," he explains, "They want to thank someone."

Art has changed the nature of takeovers. Pugh did something clever. There have been five London casts and each has been worth seeing. He produces each show as if it is a new production - new actors, proper rehearsal time and their own director. He offers short contracts (13 weeks) and good wages. By doing so, he has reversed the law of diminishing returns. "The advance box office dropped off considerably," says Pugh, "when Nigel left". Havers had also been good for the Wednesday matinee - the hardest house to fill. Looking across Shaftesbury Avenue from his office, Pugh could see young audiences going into Popcorn and Shopping and Fucking. When Art first opened he leafleted everyone who was on the Tate Gallery's mailing list. It drew a blank. This time - with Jack Dee in the cast - he leafleted everyone who'd been to see Popcorn, Shopping and Fucking and Eddie Izzard. The advance went "through the roof". They took pounds 100,000 on the mailing alone. It was a coup getting Dee for the quiet winter months. When the people that Jack Dee pulls have a drink before the show in the bar downstairs at Wyndham's they put their handbags down next to their motorcycle helmets.

Pugh wants Neil Pearson and Douglas Hodge; Rik Mayall and Ade Edmondson; Martin Clunes; Mark Rylance, and Trevor Eve. No black actor has done it yet - though Warchus met with Samuel L Jackson to discuss the Broadway production. The sixth cast looks as if it will be Richard Griffiths, James Fleet and David Bamber. Lots of actresses want to be in it. There's been talk, says Pugh, about "Juliet, Harriet and Fiona". That's Stevenson, Walter and Shaw. In the box office, once Tuesday's show has started, there's wishful thinking about Dame Maggie, Dame Judi and Dame Diana. And Frances de la Tour and Prunella Scales and Penelope Wilton. But Reza is against it. The characters argue this way, she says, because they are men.

Only one person so far - other than the understudies - has played two roles. And was good both times. Roger Allam played Serge, who buys the painting, and is now appearing as Marc, who detests it. In the dressing room after the show, he pours out glasses of red wine. "This is the only West End job I've done that I've not been screaming to get out of the theatre by the end." The run is short and the money good: "especially if you've worked a lot for the RSC." Allam thinks it's about the male crisis, which is "fashionable", it's about people passing 40, and it's very French, like Moliere. The joy in the acting, he says, quoting an aunt who came to see it, is that there's "so much going on". So what does he think of the painting? "I'd have it on my wall," he says, adding a neat rider, "Lit like that."

In his London office a jittery Pugh is about to firm up the casting for Reza's next play, The Unexpected Man, also translated by Hampton and directed by Warchus, which opens at the RSC in April for four weeks only. He's off to the Covent Garden Hotel for a drink - "hopefully cutting that deal" - with Eileen Atkins's agent and Gambon's agent. There are productions in Argentina, Scandinavia, Israel and South Africa. Art will tour Britain in the autumn while continuing to run in the West End. It's all good news. It really is. Chill out, you want to say. But David Pugh knows the only news that counts is contained within a thousand words that will appear a few hours from now at www.nytimes.com.us.

`Art' continues at Wyndham's, London WC2 (0171 369 1736), and opens in New York tonight at the Royale Theater (00 1 212 239 6200). The best casts come in threes: (roughly clockwise from foreground right) Roger Allam, Jack Dee and Mick Ford, the current crew; to the left, the second trio, Anton Lesser, Mark Williams and David Haig; behind them, the originals, Albert Finney, Tom Courtenay and Ken Stott; right at the back, Nigel Havers, Ron Cook and Malcolm Storry, the fourth cast; and, middle distance, to the right, the third line-up, Roger Allam, Stanley Townsend and Henry Goodman

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