Sunday, March 27, 2011

GOD OF STUPEFACTION -- 'God of Carnage' at The Goodman Theatre

is a somewhat deceptive title for the Chicago premiere of Yasmina Reza's new play at the Goodman Theatre, which is about as emotionally saturated as an episode of Dora The Explorer.

God of Bored Stupefaction might be a more appropriate label for this ill-conceived and often yawn-inducing production. The show aims to be neither riveting nor particularly funny, but is still a notch above doing your laundry.

Yasmina Reza's intelligent comedy advantageously exploits an audience's longing to witness the actions of people who are worse than they are, and then to further ridicule those people with their loud guffaws. What separates this play from the other famous play about two warring couples, is that by the end, the audience is supposed to come to realize that the proscenium is only just a fun house mirror. They are or have been those characters at some time and place, and have been driven to similar acts of animalistic desperation. Humans are not greater than animals;

Humans ≥ Animals.

WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF is Edward Albee's 1962 masterpiece which, coincidentally recently received its own high-profile Chicago production at Steppenwolf Theatre featuring Tony winner Tracy Letts and Tony nominee Amy Morton. God of Carnage on Broadway was a vastly different experience than at the Goodman. So different that any parallels to Virginia Woolf were lost on me at the time. I ended that side-splittingly hilarious evening concluding that the behavior of adults is really no better than the behavior of their children - if not worse. At the Goodman Theatre, director Rick Snyder has misguidedly imposed a number of rather dramatic changes that morph this lovely play and its message into a Woolf-Lite. A Diet Woolf. Woolf Zero. Caffeine-Free Woolf.

Unlike God of Carnage, Who's Afraid of Virigina Woolf is a dramatic singularity, an event that is specific to those four messed up people, on that one messed up night, in that specific messed up living room. Albee hops in a Hummer, and really drives that point home by putting twenty years of age between the two married couples.

Yasmina Reza specifies that her four characters are all in their forties, which should be noted, is the median age of theatre-goers (according to a 2006 report released by the League of American Theatres and Producers). God of Carnage is universal. The conflict is vague, the characters are stereotypes, and the design should have no elements of realism (as specified by Reza). It is a situation that I fit into, you fit into, and your second cousin Clarence could swear was written about himself. Talking to some playgoers after the show, many were under the impression that God of Carnage centers around an older couple and a younger couple, and I couldn't help but agree with that perception. Actors Mary Beth Fisher and Keith Kupferer appear much older and act more world-weary than their onstage counterparts, Beth Lacke and David Pasquesi, who bustle around with frenetic modern sensibilities. Snyder has set up a generational conflict - detracting from the plot and humor, while also also drawing nagging similarities to Virginia Woolf.

Snyder and his actors have embraced the lazy fallback Chicago method of acting -- "letsseehowfastwecantalktomakethisplayseemmorerealisticandgutsy" -- around a text that does not ask for it. God of Carnage began its life in Zurich as Le Dieu du Carnage, eventually moving to London where it won the Best New Comedy Olivier Award. The Broadway and London versions were translated by Christopher Hampton, the British playwright best known for his past collaborations with Reza and his oft-performed adaptation of Les Liasions Dangereuses. While the London version of God of Carnage was, of course, performed in English, the characters still retained their original French names (Alain, Veronique, Michel, and Annette) and location (Paris), giving logic to the strange cadence of their speech.

"Strange?" you ask? The four characters are upper middle class parents discussing a playground fight between their two young sons. One father matter-of-factly states, "Our son is a savage."
The text is chock-full of similar not-quite-right phraseology that, spoken realistically, never allows an audience to become fully immersed in the play. Speaking it at break neck pace, as if it was completely ordinary, makes it that much more conspicuous.

The company of Chicago actors drearily walk through the play, occasionally elevating their volume to underscore a point. In a play that gives them full on license to freak, they are all satisfied instead with rigid physical restraint. The one exception is Beth Lacke's Annette. Her character, who is not written to be noticed, was on the constant verge of eruption (No, I am not talking about that...), and to see her character let loose, provided some much needed respite from the rest of the procession.

Reza's expressed desire for the set to contain "nothing superfluous" and to be without realism has been unapologetically ignored by designer Takeshi Kata who has created a stark white, annoyingly modern apartment that is all too common in wealthy New York neighborhoods. The space is simultaneously so bright and yet so drab. It becomes rather difficult to watch at times - a feat in a play of only seventy-five minutes. Accompanied by Birgit Rattenborg Wise's black and white costumes, God of Carnage appears as less of a play and more of an uncharacteristically boring funeral.

God of Carnage at The Goodman Theatre is truly a celebration of the mundane, dull, and tiresome. In Snyder's purposeful or accidental efforts to create a watered-down sequel to Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, he has retained but a fourteenth of the script's comic edge, and makes a measly seventy-five minutes drag on like a chemistry course.

So, if you're short on cash and/or time, you're probably better off seeing Roman Polanski's film version of God of Carnage due out in 2012.

See! It's already edgier!

God of Carnage plays The Goodman Theatre through April 17