Mollie Wilson O'Reilly June 1, 2009 - 10:28am
French playwright Yasmina Reza won international acclaim—and the 1998 Tony Award for Best Play—with her comedy Art, in which three friends clash over the merits of an expensive, all-white painting. Audiences embraced Reza’s witty script, which floated provocative questions about modern relationships and values without digging too deep for answers. Producers loved the play’s brevity and simplicity—just as the broad appeal and the intellectual polish of the dialogue helped sell tickets, the ninety-minute running time, simple set, and three-person cast helped increase the profit margin. Well-known actors cycled in and out of the cast during the show’s lengthy run on Broadway and on tour, keeping audiences coming. Meanwhile, producers were on the lookout for more projects that took advantage of Reza’s winning formula. For years thereafter, minimalism was in for new plays on Broadway.
Reza seems poised to win another Tony for Best Play this year with her new comedy God of Carnage. The play hews closely to Art’s recipe for success, with its small cast, simple set, and short running time. The translator (Christopher Hampton) and director (Matthew Warchus) also collaborated on Reza’s previous Broadway outings. And, like Art, the new play wins laughs by exposing the pretensions and insecurities of its too-comfortable upper-middle-class characters.
God of Carnage focuses on a meeting between two sets of parents after one couple’s son has struck the other’s with a stick and broken two of his teeth. In the hands of an American playwright, this setup would surely give rise to a satire of modern parenting. But Reza isn’t interested in her characters’ identities as parents, or even as individuals. They are thin devices for exploring the playwright’s notions about civilized society and the venality and self-interest that she playfully suggests lurk beneath conventional politesse.
Although the play is billed as “a comedy of manners without the manners,” its plot depends on the conventions of polite society and their tendency to crumble under pressure. As the curtain rises, the parents’ stiffly cordial conference seems to be winding down. Hostess Veronica (Marcia Gay Harden), the mother of the injured boy, feels obliged to offer refreshments to the parents of her son’s assailant. The couples chat politely enough, but when, in the course of serving coffee and clafouti, Veronica expresses her confidence in “the art of coexistence” and “the soothing power of art,” she cues a cosmic rebuttal.
At first God of Carnage pits one couple against the other; then it shifts to a battle of the sexes, with wives aligned against husbands. By the end, each character is alienated, feeling betrayed even by his or her own spouse. “You force yourself to rise above petty-mindedness and you end up humiliated. On your own,” Veronica sulks. Her husband (James Gandolfini) replies gloomily, “We’re always on our own. Everywhere.”
Civility masks our animal natures, Reza suggests, but it does not eradicate them. Adults may control their passions better than children do, but at heart they are no less brutish. This theory is voiced by Alan (Jeff Daniels), the father of the boy with the stick, who will not pretend to be scandalized by his son’s “savage” behavior. “I believe in the god of carnage,” Alan announces. “He has ruled uninterruptedly since the dawn of time.” In this view, the conflicts among the couples and their children are an extension of the violence that dominates human history—for perspective, Alan references boy soldiers in the Congo—and is therefore useless to resist.
It is difficult to say whether Reza really believes any of this, and it seems almost beside the point to ask. The play is so thoroughly entertaining that it doesn’t need to be convincing. Reza manages a number of hilarious surprises, and some artful bons mots, as the couples’ predictable conflict unfolds. God of Carnage is a superficial but highly amusing dance of ideas, brought to vivid life by a uniformly excellent cast (which also includes Hope Davis as the offending boy’s mother).
With its warring couples and its cocktail-party-gone-bad setting, God of Carnage recalls Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? But it is less ambitious, and far less disturbing. Albee’s themes of isolation, disillusion, and man’s inhumanity to man (and wife) are dramatized more thoroughly and memorably by Tracy Letts in August: Osage County, last year’s Tony-winning play and God of Carnage’s current neighbor on Forty-fifth Street. Letts’s three-act, three-and-a-half-hour saga is truly a comedy without manners, and its success on Broadway—it recently surpassed Art’s 600-performance run—defies the minimalist pattern Yasmina Reza made popular a decade ago. In addition to its unusual length (two intermissions, at a time when plays are trending toward none!), August boasts a relatively enormous cast of thirteen and a monumental set representing three stories of a rambling prairie house. The cast that brought the play to New York came largely intact from Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre without a familiar Hollywood face or name in the mix, bucking another Broadway trend.
Where God of Carnage is an intellectual diversion, August: Osage County is an emotional workout. Letts’s play is a portrait of a family whose dysfunction takes on every conceivable form: sibling rivalry, suicide, addiction, adultery, incest, jealousy, and greed. The plot is a series of shocking revelations, but nothing that transpires among the Weston siblings and in-laws is quite as astonishing as the cruelty with which the ailing matriarch, Violet, eviscerates her children. Dramatic convention seems to dictate that the family, reuniting under tragic circumstances, should work through their pain and find some resolution and peace. But every attempt at reconciliation across the play’s three acts withers in the face of another thrillingly nasty attack from Mom.
August is more authentic and more satisfying than God of Carnage, but in the end it is not much more profound. The endless, hysterical miseries of the Westons seem constructed to defeat the idea that human fates are determined by any divinity, even a savage one. The play is compelling not because it offers any insights, but because its characters and their suffering are so immediate and real. The terrific original ensemble cast included Tony winner Deanna Dunagan as the maddening, mesmerizing Violet. Dunagan was succeeded by Estelle Parsons, whose take on Violet was equal parts vulnerability and viciousness. Parsons has just been replaced by Phylicia Rashad (best known as Clair Huxtable from The Cosby Show), a casting choice that seems at odds with the demands of the script. However, the eighty-one-year-old Parsons will be starring in the national tour of August beginning in July, so audiences outside New York will have the chance to witness her exceptional performance for themselves.
Life on the road ought to be good to a play as thoroughly American as August. Letts takes the American heartland as his setting and subject the way playwrights in past generations grounded their work in the South. One character even describes the malaise that has settled upon her family home as a regional affliction: as one might suffer from “the blues,” she has a case of “the Plains.” And the family’s infighting is witnessed, often silently, by Johnna, an American Indian recently hired to work as a housekeeper. Her presence is a reminder (if an ambiguous one) of the local and historical context in which the Westons’ struggles play out.
In contrast, the world of God of Carnage always feels artificial, despite Veronica’s insistence that “what goes on in Cobble Hill Park reflects the values of our society.” Translator Hampton has carefully substituted Brooklyn locations for the Parisian ones in Reza’s original script, but the play nevertheless retains its unmistakable continental air. (What American would initiate small talk by asking, as Gandolfini does here, “So, clafouti: is it a cake or a tart?”) But realism is not Reza’s first priority, and the lack of it seldom interferes with God of Carnage’s considerable entertainment value. Neither August nor Carnage is a groundbreaking study of human nature. But both plays make a case for the vitality of drama on Broadway. With so many major talents in town, the future may not be minimalistic after all.
Pictured: James Gandolfini, Hope Davis, Marcia Gay Harden, and Jeff Daniels in God of Carnage. Photo by Joan Marcus.