“Why do we see each other if we hate each other?” Yvan (Stephen Tompkinson) asks towards the end of Yasmina Reza’s now legendary comedy Art. Yvan’s comment is made halfway through an uncomfortable evening in which his friendship with Marc (Denis Lawson) and Serge (Nigel Havers), as well as Serge’s new white painting, has been the subject of much heated debate. In Reza’s play, a £200 000 modernist piece of art becomes a catalyst for the tension, fear and suspicion that radiate between the three men, and you wonder whether the white canvas will end up tearing their old friendship to shreds.

Having run on English-speaking stages for over 20 years, Art is advertised in the program at Norwich Theatre Royal as “one of the most successful comedies ever.” Originally written in French, the play was translated by Christopher Hampton and opened in London’s West End in October 1996 to rave reviews. It won an Olivier Award for best new comedy, and the Tony for best new play when it transferred to Broadway two years later. Art was revived at the Old Vic in 2016 for its 20th anniversary run, directed by artistic director Matthew Warchus. The current production has been touring since February of this year.

The staging is clean and simple, with white furniture and tall white walls that have the three men cast long shadows across the stage. The 80-minute play consists of 17 short sections that blend into each other; when it is time for a transition the stage is bathed in blue light, and the scene change is accompanied by a jaunty xylophone tune. We separate the three middle-aged men’s apartments through the paintings on the back wall. Marc’s is of a symmetrical landscape, Yvan owns a more experimental still life, while Serge’s wall is empty; he has yet to hang up his most recent investment.

In a monologue to the audience, Marc, the classicist, berates his friend Serge’s purchase. “It makes me physically ill that my friend has bought a white painting,” he says, sneering at his friend’s apparent interest in “modernism.” He tries to make his more liberal friend Yvan his ally, but Yvan is more worried about his own wedding, which will take place in two weeks’ time. Serge is willing to defend the painting with his life and honour: “Objectively speaking, it’s not white.” This minor conflict takes on huge and often hilarious proportions when the characters start turning on each other in turn, like a twisted love triangle. Their large, stripped-down surroundings make the feelings the three men invest in physical objects seem all the more ridiculous.

The play opens up many questions about what constitutes both friendships and good art, emphasized by the three characters’ rapid dialogue and contrasting monologues to the audience. Their deep conflict masquerades as superficial arguments over how best to view the painting, whether they find its use of colour touching, and that there may be more than one kind of white. Isn’t there a bit of grey in there? Some yellow, perhaps? Or do the layers upon layers of white paint actually depict a snowstorm in which a man is lost while trying to move forward?

The trio’s true emotions surface in the end, and it is Yvan who gives the play heart. Tompkinson is moving in his role as “Yvan the joker” who can’t stop crying, and his rant about a conflict between his mother and fiancé gets a round of applause. Lawson plays Marc as a moody obsessive, scared of losing his best friend to people who like conceptual art. Havers’ Serge starts out with a fresh enthusiasm that slowly unravels as his £200 000 purchase is criticised first by Marc, then eventually by Yvan. After the latter has to break up a fistfight between the former pupil and mentor, they eat olives in heavy silence. All three men manage to hold the audience’s attention while eliciting roars of laughter, and towards the end, all three more or less earn our sympathy.

Art plays at Norwich Theatre Royal from Monday 23rd to Saturday 28th April.