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God of Carnage

26 May 2009 (Jacobs Theatre)

In God of Carnage — and with who knows how much input from playwright and translator Christopher Hampton — Yasmina Reza has broken beyond the ballets for archetypes that such earlier plays as Art and The Unexpected Man boil down to. The action in those plays crops out as much of the characters' contexts — their regular lives — as can be dispensed with without making an extended anecdote unintelligible. There is something furiously particular about the two rocky couples in the new play. It is an antiphon of sorts to Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Edward Albee's play explores what happens when long-simmering resentments are exposed by alcohol-fueled recklessness and youthful naivetι. Ms Reza's play shows what happens when being bourgeois suddenly becomes tiresome for several people at the same time.

Henry, the son of Veronica and Michael Vallon, has had his front teeth knocked out on the playground by Benjamin, the son of Annette and Alan Raleigh. Now the four parents are meeting in the Vallons' house, apparently to agree on some official version of the attack. The women seem to labor under the impression that an amicable accord can be reached without too much of a strain. The men seem to know better, and want to get the thing over with as soon as possible. They register their unwillingness to participate with monosyllabic, yes-no answers to questions from the women. Michael usually smiles when he speaks, at least at first. Alan is often interrupted by his cell phone, on which he conducts obnoxious and indiscreet shouting matches with clients and associates. It is obvious that he relishes such interruptions.

There appears to be an understanding that at some later point in the day, Benjamin will be brought over to see Henry. What exactly this meeting will consist of is fatally unclear, but no one is troubled by this detail at the start. Again, it's the women who are proud of themselves for handling what could be an ugly dispute with civilized decorum. Veronica is almost punctilious, in her diffident, gravely grown-up way, about crossing t's and dotting i's. Punctiliousness looks increasingly odd, though, on a woman wearing black lace stockings and hoop earrings, and when we learn that Veronica works with art books and is about to publish a book about Darfur, we begin to smell a diva under wraps.

It's obvious that the Raleighs and the Vallons would never be friends unless two of them had gone to school together. Perceptible but less clear is the fracture in each marriage that makes it difficult for husband and wife to act in concert. These fractures stem from detachment, not resentment. They play out very differently in each couple. The Vallons, as the less-educated pair, fall back on generic complaints about the opposite sex that neither takes particularly seriously. Annette and Alan, in contrast, each believe that the other is special, and could be doing better. For all their fuming, the Vallons are companions. It is unlikely that Alan Raleigh seeks companionship with anyone. As for Annette, she is a good girl who wants not to fail. Success is her governor: it keeps her steady. When she accepts the fact that the meeting with the Vallons has been not just a failure but a catastrophe, she erupts in the terrible ecstasy of a Bacchante. Veronica is right, if for the wrong reasons, to call Annette a "phoney" behind her back.

What is so catastrophic about the get-together at the Vallons? No one is physically injured, and no non-withdrawable shockers are disclosed. What makes God of Carnage such delightful theatre is that the catastrophe has nothing to do with the law courts that have been overseeing tragedy and handing down judgment on tragically-flawed heroes since The Eumenides. Rather, the unraveling in God of Carnage is almost a kind of very bad sex. Fully clothed, with libidos buttoned down, four adults find themselves sucked from positions of self-control by the vanities of parental regard, and exposed in extremely unattractive postures. Do these postures betray "who they really are"? More to the point, is it because they've discovered what they're really like that the four of them are numb with disaster at the end? I myself don't think so, but that's not because the play points me toward that conclusion. I regard the unhappiness as highly circumstantial. Having embarked on an ill-advised course of speaking their minds, politely at first but with increasing truculence and discomfort, the Vallons and the Raleighs lose their bearings, tearing at their spouses as readily as at the parents of the brat who got them in this fix. There are no truths to be learned — except that good behavior is a good idea for a reason. As a minor object lesson, the play also counsels that, if you ever find yourself in either of the couples' situations, then by all means confine your negotiations to talks between the fathers or between the mothers — one or the other, but not both.

Ms Reza, Mr Hampton, and director David Warchus are to be praised for the very fine pacing at the end of the show. After seventy-five minutes of mounting hilarity — the onstage catastrophe happens to be awfully funny to watch — the audience might be expected to find itself in a "tears at bedtime" mood, just as ruefully spent as the Raleighs and the Vallons. Instead, there is a final explosion of senseless madness (again, no one gets hurt) that works a cathartic magic on the proceedings. We are taken from the theatre of the comedy of manners to something more wantonly mythic. In a senseless but unignorable gesture, Annette strips the meeting of its last vestige of respectable propriety — and we are released.

The acting throughout is extraordinarily impressive. Jeff Daniels's excellent impersonation of a barely-socialized lawyer is terrifying — do we really permit men to behave as he does? And reward them handsomely for it?! Marcia Gay Harden's Veronica is the most intriguing characterization; I came away thinking that the youthfully wanton art groupie had, in middle age, latched onto the idea that her world would not survive without rigorously patrolled borders  — hence her punctilio. James Gandolfini was magnificently restrained about exploiting the show's many opportunities for him to play on his famous career at HBO. (Michael is a housewares wholesaler with a warehouse in Secaucus, for the love of Mike.) But the palm that I have to bestow must go to Hope Davis. The brightest moment of the show for me occurred right after Annette finally gets rid of a long-standing nuisance. At first she is giddy with delight, but her satisfaction deepens, and, crossing the stage, she sits on the edge of a table, as poised as a bowsprit, her chest heaving with flushed exhilaration. This afterflow of great sex was worth all the awful non-sex. As if that weren't enough, Ms Davis brought the play to its finish  by trampling on every iota of her blonde angelic appeal.

Mark Thompson's designs for sets and costumes could not be better. Aside from the furniture, the scenery consists of a low stone wall set at an angle in the Chinese-red box of the stage. To me, the wall suggested the not-entirely digested artiness of Veronica's aesthetic; when Michael, well into the show, is upset by a telephone call from his mother, he seems to be anywhere but at home. Hugh Vanstone's lighting and Gary Yershon's music are appropriately minimal. When the quaintly childlike drawing on the curtain is lifted, we see two beautifully-lighted bowls of splendid tulips, in such profusion that they seem to be waving like sea grass. Little do we know. (May 2009)

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