Monday, March 28, 2011

"God of Carnage"--A Play Review

Saturday's production of Yasmina Reza's 2009 Tony-winning play, "God of Carnage", at the Goodman Theater was commendable for efficient direction (Rick Snyder), a beautiful minimalist living-room set, and good performances by energetic actors who were appropriately over-the-top.  Moreover, an evening at the Goodman is comforting, enveloping one in art and enlightenment in the company of open-minded guests within an intimate and friendly surrounding.

And there was the excitement of the promise of a world-class, award-winning comedy by a renowned international playwright. 

Unfortunately, I had major reservations after this play was over, and felt at odds with what appears to have become an inviolable darling of Broadway.  I was roundly disappointed, even annoyed, by Reza's work.  At first I thought I was missing something, but ultimately decided to trust my instincts.

Although Reza writes good, crisp, often amusing dialogue, and understands pacing and the construction of a deliverable monologue, her ideas come off as glib and unoriginal.  That didn't seem to bother the scores of theatergoers around me who howled with laughter.  I wondered if they were honestly reacting to what was unfolding before them, or to the reputation that preceded this production.

True, context is everything.  But is the sight of a woman spewing vomit on rare art books anyone's idea of a witty evening at the theater?  Are stories about cruelty to helpless animals, (in this case a monologue about one character's abandoning a pet hamster to die in the street), funny in any context?  Does a character's obsession with his cell phone automatically make the work Timely and Relevant? 

It is a simple premise.  Two eleven-year-old boys have a fight at school and one of them has some teeth broken.  As the play begins, the parents of each of the boys have gathered in the apartment of one of the couples to determine how (and if) they can intervene for a resolution to the conflict. 

Their blistering and rambunctious sparring, self-revelations, and constantly shifting loyalties comprise the play's 70--yes, 70--minutes,, not enough to treat any of the dozen or so issues with any depth.  But 70 minutes was enough to shake me up, and send me out without having too many honest laughs.

I think Reza intended to shake up her audience, but I wasn't with her on this one.  I resented "God of Carnage."

The injured boys parents are Veronica (Mary Beth Fisher), a high-functioning Type-A, who is writing a book on the crisis on Darfur, believes in the ability of people to co-exist, and is proud of her appreciation for art and home-baking; and Michael (Keith Kupferer), a housewares salesman, seemingly liberal in deference to his wife, and whose mother may be suffering harmful side effects from a prescription drug.

The parents of the violent son are Annette (Beth Lacke), who is a placator with the weak stomach but strong opinions about pain and marriage; and Alan (David Pasquesi), an attorney who is obsessed with his work, believes that the human condition is essentially primitive and cruel, and may be defending the drug that has made Michael's mother ill.

In short order, the carefully constructed facades and veneers of civilized behavior are stripped away, the schoolyard fight is all but forgotten and unresolved, and the couples descend into venomous farce and slapstick, wounding each other in so many different permutations one's head spins.  It is played loudly and rapidly for laughs, but why? This could be the bleakest "comedy" ever produced.

Problem is, as drama (without the laughs) I got the point in the first 10 minutes...BEFORE Amanda vomits to demonstrate Reza's notion that underneath our exteriors we are all bile and filth.  I get it.  But I wanted to be dazzled with words, not a teen-flick gross-out. 

I think it is the playwright's duty to translate ideas into words that can be spoken naturally by actors, whose task it becomes to use their skills in voice and movement to bring characters to life, under the direction of one whose mission is to create a technically sound and artistic environment for this expression.  Theater is not, I think, primarily a visual medium, and I bristle at the recent introduction of motion-picture visual effects in what is essentially a medium of words and character.

Reza has material here for a lot of plays, and she almost successfully weaves humanity's flaws with global issues and philosophy.  During the churning segment in which the characters clean up the vomit and try to save some rare books with a hair dryer and perfume, we get an inkling of an idea about how we have too many "things'.  But it is dropped in favor of gender roles, the savageness of the human animal, the impossibility of coexistence, the minefield of marriage, the breakdown of loyalty, the heartbreak of raising children, and that ill-fated hamster.

We get build-ups to interesting ideas, only to be constantly interrupted by the cell phone.  Yeah, I get that too, the irony of technology cutting off communication. But I really wanted these characters to come to some original points, without the tired interruptions. 

Just when I was resolved to accept this as a type of theater of the absurd, the playwright seeks to wring emotion from the poor hamster and one of the children's reactions to its demise.  As a symbol reminiscent of George and Martha's "murdered" son, it was simply unnecessary and unpleasant.

"God of Carnage" had potential to mix up some wicked ideas in a comic brew that left audiences thoughtful and wanting to come back for more.

As it is, all one is left with are some empty laughs and nasty spectacle, and the upcoming film version, directed by Roman Polanski and starring Jodie Foster and Kate Winslett, would not seem to hold anything new.

The play sure didn't.

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