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As Trivial as the Characters It Portrays
on March 16, 2011
Born in 1960, Yasmina Reza is perhaps best known for her wickedly funny ART, a satire on the intellectual pretensions of both the art world and its detractors. Produced in New York in 2009, GOD OF CARNAGE is similar in that raises the question of how civilized we supposedly civilized westerners are and then bites the head off every possible response. It is sharp and clever and interesting stuff. It is also, at least in my opinion, in the theatrical minor leagues--not because of the author's skill, but because of the short span of time she allows herself in which to set up the premise, develop the characters, and send them flying at each other.
The play concerns two married couples. Alan and Annette are well-to-do, upper-middle-class rather than rich, with Alan owning and managing a home supply-type store. Michael and Veronica are flatly rich, Michael an attorney who represents drug manufacturers and Vernonica a self-styled author who works part time in a specialty book store. They might easily have met at a cocktail party, or a book signing, or a similar venue, but it is their sons who have bought them together. Both are boys, both are about eleven years old, and they recently had a playground scuffle in which Alan and Annette's son took a stick and hit Michael and Veronica's son across the face, with a cut lip and two broken teeth the result.
The two couples have met at Michael and Veronica's home to discuss what should be done. Both Alan and Annette feel their son should take responsibility for his act; Michael and Veronica are slightly more diffident, but they too feel the boys should meet and an apology should be given. Everything is very friendly, all four give the impression of head-shaking bemusement, and within minutes the covert stabs begin. At first these center on the children and the degree of guilt involved, but with a little alcohol, and one too many interruptions from Michael's cell phone, and the discovery that Veronica recently released her daughter's hamster to a certain death, all hell breaks loose.
At first it seems the couples will unite against each other, but in short order the alliances begin to shift back and forth. It becomes apparent that neither marriage is particularly happy. After a certain point, it transpires that Alan and Veronica have background on Africa--Alan, who has been there and see it for himself, Veronica, who has studied it extensively for a book project. Suddenly the battle transforms from "whose child" to "whose civilization," and the play cumulates in a riot of accusations and tulip tossing.
If this sounds good--it is, but the trouble with it is that it has a run time of ninety minutes. It is rather difficult to accept the notion that these four people could manage to make such a rapid leap from cheerful and friendly to drunken and vicious within the first half hour of the play, still more difficult to accept that they could become so barbed without Alan and Annette simply solving the problem by walking out. But what most hurts the play is the fact that Reza crams too much into her self-imposed time. As one issue gives way to another, we simply don't have the time to see, to understand, and the resulting play feels as superficially intellectual as her own characters. It is a pity.
In Memory of Roscoe
Faithful Companion, 1999-2011