Tuesday, March 22, 2011

'God of Carnage' a Fine Farce, but Leaves Me Agnostic About Any Deeper Meaning or Merit -- Theater Review

Theater Review

God of Carnage
a play by Yasmina Reza, directed by Rick Snyder
Goodman Theatre, Chicago
Thru April 17, 2011

God of Carnage is a farce. I don't mean that as an insult, but as a genre description of a play whose absurdity--in the tradition of Albee and Moliere--is presumably part of the point.

The comedy, another global smash written by Yasmina Reza--who enjoyed similar success with Art--is also one of the most decorated new plays of the last few years, having won the Tony in 2009 and the Olivier (for London theater) before that.

I found it enjoyable, and even laugh-out-loud funny at times, but if it winds up being the best play--of any vintage--I see in 2011, I'm not getting out enough. Actually, it already isn't.

Certainly the fact that I was solidly entertained for the whole show--albeit a 75-minute one-act quickie--says much about Reza's (and translator Christopher Hampton's) gift for dialogue and, well, appealing absurdity.

But if, even just two days after seeing it, God of Carnage is supposed to have any lasting resonance--as a truly great play should--it really doesn't. 

The show features a four-person cast comprised of two married, well-to-do couples who get together at one of their posh Brooklyn homes to discuss a schoolyard fight between their 11-year-old sons. The conversation takes various twists and turns, changes up "debate partners" and becomes about more than the relatively minor impetus, but none of the characters are particularly appealing, interesting or empathetic.

When God of Carnage opened on Broadway, the couples of Michael & Veronica and Alan & Annette were played by James Gandolfini & Marcia Gay Harden and Jeff Daniels & Hope Davis. Given that I would pay to overhear those four having a conversation over dinner, I imagine the casting not only lent largely to the play's success, but to its acclaim.

In Chicago, where Goodman Theatre is staging the initial production after a Broadway tour was scrapped, four very good actors star in the play. David Pasquesi is typically excellent as Alan, a smarmy lawyer with annoying cell phone habits. Beth Lacke, as Alan's wife Annette, Mary Beth Fisher as Veronica and Keith Kupferer in the Gandolfini role of Michael all do solid work under the direction of Rick Snyder.

But none of them are what the world at large would call "stars." And without star power to amplify one's enjoyment of self-righteous squabbling amongst shallow, self-absorbed people, what's left is a farce without any forceful purpose.

With some great moments, God of Carnage--as presented at the Goodman--is suitably entertaining, in a manner not unlike a good episode of Modern Family. But in simply spoofing a stereotype--which presumably matches many in the target audience--Reza's latest smash just doesn't compare to other highly-lauded plays of the past decade, including Proof, Doubt, Frost/Nixon, The Pillowman and August: Osage County.

If you're a Goodman subscriber like me, you'll probably be glad just to get a glimpse of something so recent as part of the season. I imagine this show would likely make a decent choice for date night, particularly at a discount. But with stellar choices almost always on the boards in Chicago, this much-heralded 'God' really doesn't merit too much reverence.

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