Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Not a Review: God of Carnage

I saw the Dallas Theater Center's latest show, God of Carnage, by Yasmina Reza.

God of Carnage poster from the Dallas Theater Center

A good production, as you'd expect, with good performances by four actors (three with strong ties to my home theater Kitchen Dog).

The play itself?  Not a big fan.

I mean it was OKAY.  Held my interest and was intermittently funny.

But the idea of two well-off couples meeting in a drawing room - until  politeness descends to mankind's innate savagery and that drawing room is trashed - is not exactly a new idea.  In fact, I'm sick of it.  Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf or The Goat (which I got to design) have the same veneer-of-civilization-cracking, but dialogue is sharper, emotions more visceral and savage, and there's a specificity and point to the conflict that God of Carnage's scuffling school boy story just doesn't generate.

About those school boys.  I understand the playwright's point is that we're all selfish creatures at heart - making even mother-love a shallow thing - but I don't buy that either mother could be so unfocused on her kid.  Despite the actresses' best efforts, the script doesn't allow much depth of feeling or motherly defensiveness.  The fathers are worse.  Now, if the playwright wanted to prove parental selfishness, what I would believe is the classic version, where the parent is protective in a tribal rather than affection-for-that-individual-kid way and narcissism shows in the self-congratulatory martyrdom many mothers are famous for.  That I'd believe.  This?  No.

It's an awful fast decent into savagery too.

And really?  Must one actress vomit on stage?  We live in a crude age (just look at popular comedy movies) and the vomit scene does make a huge impact onstage... but it's a cheap thrill.  So is coarse language.  Writers who want to be seen as "edgy" seem to feel it's obligatory.  But no one is shocked anymore.  Really.  The laughs coarse language gets are cheap laughs.  (Just as the garter belt in my own Boeing, Boeing gets cheap laughs.  Have playwrights, directors, and producers so little pride?  Silly question.)

So.  Not a big fan of the play.

The set?  The set showcases the obligatory African art - Africa is mentioned in the text and it underlines the primitive emotions.  I'm not sure about the color scheme: bright reds and sky blues, plus earthy browns and oranges.  An early set sketch of John Arnone's was printed in the program (great idea!  thanks).  I preferred that version, where the reds and oranges were more integrated, rather than contrasted as in the finished set.  I'm not sure if this was a deliberate change in focus - to emphasize conflict - or an unfortunate change made for pragmatic reasons, since the revised version is a simpler and thus a cheaper build.  For me, the bright red commanding fireplace - crowned by African art and ivory tusks - is another stage-y cheap thrill.  Which makes me wonder whether Mr. Arnone wasn't sending-up his own show a bit, creating a satirically cartoonish setting for this cartoonish story.

I'd have been tempted.

Perhaps my biggest disappointment, after hearing that this was a Tony-winning play by a "hot" playwright etc., was that I didn't hear any memorable, quotable, or clever lines.  The hamster story is worth repeating, but otherwise, zip.

Lady Bracknell (who knew her way around a drawing room) would have had something politely savage to say about that lack.  Since I can't remember a line from God of Carnage, here's one from The Importance of Being Earnest:

"To be born, or at any rate bred in a handbag, whether it have handles or not, seems to me to display a contempt for the ordinary decencies of family life which reminds one of the worst excesses of the French revolution, and I presume you know what that unfortunate movement led to?" 

Behind the Scenes Note: The unfortunate digestive movement onstage has led, I'm told, to a plague of gnats in the theater.  Attracted by the moisture and... well, by whatever the heck else was "vomited" and not well enough cleaned up.

The exterminator had to be called in.

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