Friday, June 4, 2010

Virginia Woolf has nothing to be afraid of (Theatre - God of Carnage by Yamina Reza)

I went to the theatre for the first time in, oh.... more than 8 months, last night. This from someone who used to work in the field and see three shows a week! How wonderful to live within 25 minutes of Broadway and have smart bill of fare with great casts the likes of Jeff Daniels and the inimitable Janet McTeer. The play was Yasmina Reza's God of Carnage. She wrote Art, a provocative philosophical play about the nature of the title subject that was the talk of the theatre scene in the mid 1990s. Last night's play had everything I tend to like in an evening at the theatre: serious moral questions, demands that the actors invest deeply in their circumstances, good roles served by able actors, it did not rely on a lot of spectacle - so why didn't I like it? It was because the play had little imagination, it relied on cliched rather than idiosyncratic ideas of people, and because, although its stakes were high, neither the writing nor the acting was quite up to delivering them authentically.

God of Carnage concerns two well-to-do New York couples (at least in this translation by Christopher Hampton. I would actually like to know if the French version is set in Paris and Hampton's West End version in London, with their particulars) whose young sons get into an altercation. One breaks two teeth of the other, although this act was likely provoked, it was a verbal act that precipitated the physical one. The parents get together in a gesture of working things out amicably and the evening devolves into a violent free-for-all in which the enlightened foursome become drunk and abusive themselves and, ostensibly, show their true colors, which are more savage than their children's. The play attempted to address "real" circumstances in current up-scale New York life, but was really more what you might think New York were like if your only experience of it was from Sex in the City. Honestly, this was some television idea of Soho or Upper East Side whining at its worst. Cell phones. Lawyers defending evil pharmaceutical companies, money buying couples beautiful furnishings and overpriced tulips from the Korean deli on the corner, but not buying them love. Its hyper-reality rendered it mundane. Who cares? I guess the average theatre goer probably cares because they are generally over 60 and from a high income bracket or are Broadway tourists (no offence meant) . But this play certainly did not reflect my life or the life of my friends with children, not even taking into account the fact that it carefully subtitles itself a "farce." Is that supposed to mean that we don't take its moral quandries seriously?

The s biggest joke of the evening is that one of the monied foursome barfs uncontrollably for a time. This, of course, requires a theatrical solution, since it is unreasonable to ask an actor to throw up every night. Barfing on stage or screen is a pet peeve of mine because a) it is a cliche and b) it is one of those things that the audience KNOWS is not true. Dying falls into this category too and plenty of characters in dramas do that, I know - but that is trying to address the ultimate mystery - the end of life. There is something about the basic truth of throwing up that means everyone knows you're faking it. And unless everything else the character is doing is absolutely believable, it throws the authenticity of the entire performance into question for me. If Lucy Liu had been up to the rest of the emotional requirements of her role, maybe I might have been more forgiving, but she was hard pressed to yank herself up to the dramatic demands of her barfing agony, subsequent drunk scene, and the gorgeous monologue that Yasmina Reza wrote and that is sure to become a staple of the audition scene for 40 something actresses for the next couple of years. Dylan Baker was adequate as her husband. Janet McTeer was emotionally available though sometimes strained. It was only Jeff Daniels who showed great insight and admirable vulnerability to the circumstances, an intelligent choice as he was ultimately meant to be the least feeling of the bunch. But the writing seemed to demand impossible reactions given the circumstances and the acting, understandably, was not able to justify it. Although I was happy that a play was exploring the circumstances it did and was able to laugh at some of the jokes, I didn't buy God of Carnage . Reza cannot have been innocent of the references she made to Edward Albee's great play Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf - a foursome with marital problems who get drunk of an evening and reveal far too much about themselves while slaughtering contemporary values, but the homage she pays does not does not reach the level of its object of admiration either in terms of histrionics or lyricism.


Unknown said...

Oh well. I'm going to New York in a couple of weeks and this was going to be my one "Broadway" show. I loved Art and The Unexpected Man so I thought another Reza play would be a sure fire bet for me. I can, alas, afford only one "Broadway" ticket even at half price.

Maybe I'll reconsider Promises, Promises. ;-)

Ted said...

I believe that it closes next week in any case (although please don't not see it on my account). I loved Art too. Al Pacino is doing The Merchant of Venice in Central Park (it's free!). Billy Crudup is doing a new play at the Vineyard and he's great even if the play got some eh responses. Alfred Molina is playing Mark Rothko on Broadway (I've heard mixed responses on this one). If you see Promises, Promises let me know what you think. I always love Chenoweth!