In Yasmina Reza’s Art, three friends are at odds as their dynamic shifts.

What binds people together? Long-term friendships are often taken for granted, so when a 15-year-old connection between three brothers in arms unravels, the effect can be devastating. But what could so abruptly threaten the deep bonds between rational, intelligent adults? Yasmina Reza, a celebrated Parisian playwright, places a seemingly insurmountable obstacle in front of her educated, upper-middle class protagonists: A white painting with a few barely visible streaks of off-white color splattered across it.

Serge, a dermatologist and dabbler in modern art, has just purchased said painting for €100,000 and can’t wait to show off the acquisition to his friends, Marc and Yvan. While the two friends can’t quite comprehend Serge’s decision to spend a small fortune on a completely white canvas, Marc – the self-proclaimed intellectual leader of the group – feels personally insulted by this supposed modernist masterpiece, while Yvan – an ineffectual funnyman, attempts to infuse humor into a situation that has suddenly turned sour.

Since its 1994 premiere in Paris, the award-winning comedy-drama has been performed worldwide; Christopher Hampton, a playwright and screenwriter who won an Oscar for Dangerous Liaisons, did Reza justice with a brilliant English translation. Reza has also written the plays The Unexpected Man and God of Carnage. The latter was even adapted for the big screen by Roman Polanski.

With Friends Like These…

The 90-minute play has been performed by illustrious casts in the past. The inaugural London run was led by Albert Finney, Tom Courtenay and Ken Stott, and Vienna’s English Theatre’s production has Marc, Serge and Yvan convince from their first entrance onto the sparingly furnished single set.

Under the direction of accomplished director and playwright Sean Aita, George Beach’s Marc and Howard Nightingall’s Serge engage in an inspired verbal tug of war, with the hapless Yvan – played by a very convincing Charles Armstrong – caught up in a tangled mess of injured egos.

Looking handsomely slick in his three-piece pinstripe suit, Beach plays aeronautical engineer Marc with a Cary Grant-like physicality: Swaying back and forth like a metronome, hands perpetually in his pockets, but infused with a not-so-charming mean streak. His facial contortions are hilarious at first, but soon expose an unreasonable man who feels betrayed by the newly assertive Serge. The versatile Nightingall proves an ideal sparring partner for Beach – he looks every bit the well-to-do dermatologist turned benevolent intellectual who Marc now despises. And Armstrong, a veteran stage and screen actor, convincingly portrays Yvan as a directionless husband-to-be who suddenly finds the refuge that is their friendship under threat.

Bringing to life Reza’s tightly written play, the excellent cast offers an exploration of the complex dynamics of friendship. On the surface, the question seems to be, can one truly be friends with someone who doesn’t share the same interests? However, as the trio’s rift threatens to become irreversible, the white canvas at the heart of their conflict reveals itself to be merely the point of departure in the pursuit of more uncomfortable questions about the utility of friendships. Don’t expect Art to give you easy answers.

Through Feb 24 ex. Sun, 19:30, Vienna’s English Theatre. 8., Josefsgasse 12. http://englishtheatre.at