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WHEN: Begins in previews Sunday (pay-what-you-can night, minimum $10) and opens Thursday. Continues through Nov. 17

WHERE: Studio Arena Theatre, 710 Main St.

ADMISSION: $18 to $45

INFO: 856-8025

"Art," Yasmina Reza's 1998 Tony Award-winning comedy, next on tap at Studio Arena Theatre, is the story of three old pals who start squabbling with one another over - not a woman, not sports, not politics - but a painting, an all-white painting.

The bickering escalates into rancorous arguments. And soon these otherwise reasonable men find themselves engaging in some cruel behind-the-scenes backbiting. Things become so bad that friendships begin to crack, and derision is spread freely among this once-jolly trio.

Serge, the one person of the group with vague intellectual pretensions, has purchased this color-free painting at a very high price. Anxious to show his friends his minimalist possession, he brings them around for a viewing. At first they feign interest - even though they can't help inserting their little jokes and mocking questions. Then, slowly and comically, their true feelings begin to emerge. It's all down hill from there.

Casting the three characters of the play is not particularly problematic. That "Art" has been a hit all over the world - in productions in London, Toronto, Moscow and Tel Aviv - can be attributed to the engaging nature of these three roles. Each character has his bank of witty and clever remarks, plus his moments of either outrage, pain or puzzlement in the face of this mute white expanse that is the sole cause of their dissention. Actors have a lot to showcase here.

The Studio Arena production will feature Peter Van Wagner as Serge, Roger Forbes as Marc and John Curless as Ivan. Geoffrey Sherman, who last season directed a far different sort of play at Studio Arena - Tennessee Williams' "Suddenly Last Summer" - will direct.

Gavin Cameron-Webb, the theater's artistic director, was well aware that one "role" would be more difficult to fill. The entire play - its humor, its complicated emotional unraveling of close friendships - swings around the stage presence of a 4-by-5-foot white painting. The problem, as Cameron-Webb saw it, was to create a painting that was both believable as a real work of art and still fulfill the fairly precise descriptions in Reza's dialogue and stage directions.

To ensure the painting didn't come off as a generic stage prop of no particular distinction, Cameron-Webb commissioned the respected Buffalo abstract painter Ted Miller to create the painting from scratch. Miller - who for the purposes of the play also had to do a replica - delivered the completed paintings this past Wednesday. In a phone interview Thursday and still exhausted from the final bout with these two white canvases, he talked about the experience. This was his first time working on a collaborative project, he said, and it was a bit strange creating a painting from a verbal description.

"Within the dialogue of the play there are descriptions of the painting and more descriptions in the stage directions," Miller said. "There's one reference to variations in the white, and at one point a character says, "When you screw up your face you can see diagonal lines.' "

So there it was: make a 4-by-5-foot, all-white painting with faint diagonal lines with some small variations in the whites. Then make another one that looks precisely like it. Not exactly a recipe for free-wheeling creativity.

At first, Miller recalled, there was some discussion that the canvas should have zero variations - not diagonals, no shifts of value in the white, just an undifferentiated layer of white paint. "The thought was to make nothing visually evidence, to make the variations happen only in the minds of the characters."

Director Sherman decided such a ruse wouldn't do and gave Miller a little bit of latitude in how the painting should look. With this new-found freedom Miller went to work.

"I varied the width of the diagonal strips and added some texture as visual relief," Miller said. "I worked mostly with palette knives to build up the surface, letting some of the raw canvas show through and worked a warm white over a cooler white beneath. It definitely was a process."

But it wasn't so much the process of making a work of art as simulating the process of making a work of art. "Because a replica was involved, it was something of a mechanized approach to painting," he said. "I set up the paintings side by side in my studio and, as the painting developed, moved back and forth, one to the other."

Miller explained that the second painting was needed because the painting is defiled by one of the characters. When one of the characters draws in magic marker a skier sliding down one of those diagonals. Though a water-based marker was used so that the operation could be repeated throughout the run of the play, certain scenes required a fresh painting.

"At first, the set designer (G.W. Mercier) thought I might be offended that somebody would mark up the painting," Miller said. He wasn't. Miller had no illusions: This was a set design project, not the creation of an independent work of art.

At the very beginning those diagonals gave some problems. In this country a convention says that the height of a painting goes before the weight. Reza went by another convention that put width before height. "By making the painting an upright, the diagonals came out too acute," Miller explained. "They were too steep for the graffiti skier to execute."

Miller had other small problems. Knowing the painting was supposed to have been painted in the 1970s, he went out of his way to get wood with some age on it for the stretcher bars. "I thought it would look ridiculous if the character was seen carrying around this brand-new canvas."

Miller is well-trained for this sort of precise art simulation. He holds a masters of fine art from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh and before that received an ungraduate degree from Wake Forest University in Illinois in philosophy and art. He not only knows how to make paintings, but has a good grip on how to think about them as well.

Locally, Miller's big abstract paintings - none of which are pure white with diagonals, by the way - have been shown at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, the Anderson Gallery, Big Orbit Gallery and most recently in the "Emerging Artists" exhibition last year at Burchfield-Penney Art Center.

Overall, Miller thinks his painting does the job fine. "It looks like a credible painting," he said.

But the commission has left him with one big fear. "I'm worried that I won't be able to ever paint a painting again without a script to work from."


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