Saturday, January 14, 2012

Hello, God? It's me, Carnage

Christy Pusz gets in touch with God.  Photo: T. Clark Erickson.
There's a telling moment in Yasmina Reza's God of Carnage (at the Huntington through Feb. 5) in which Alan, an alpha-male asshole if ever there was one, admits his pet-name for his wife Annette is "Woof-Woof."

That's right.  Annette is a pet literally - in fact, she's Alan's dog.

Actually, to get really specific about it - she's his bitch.

I know - cold.  But that's the kind of nasty chill that should run through this cynical four-hander, which charts the descent of four seemingly-civilized adults into a childish orgy of destruction.  Reza's set-up couldn't be simpler: the parents of two children who have tangled on the playground meet to mediate the resulting claims of injury (one kid - Alan's, of course - has actually knocked out two of the other kid's teeth).  We know minutes into the first scene, however, that the veneer of sophisticated parlay these two couples have been trained to deploy with each other will soon be torn away, and that "the god of carnage" (as Alan puts it) will inevitably declare total war across the designer furniture and vases of tulips "just shipped in today" from that peaceable kingdom, the Netherlands.

At the Huntington, however, the cold edge of Reza's schema feels slightly blunted, which is too bad, because honestly, without razor-sharp execution, the glibness of her theme begins to weigh on the repetitive action, and her (admirably) unlikable characters become a tad tiresome even as her tone starts to curdle.  It's not that this production falls apart - it's snarkily enjoyable for the most part, and certainly counts as a big step up from the likes of Captors and Before I Leave You.  But it's never quite as much mean-spirited fun as you want it to be, and that's because director Daniel Goldstein hasn't really nailed his casting - and that's because he hasn't really understood his play.

And that's because Goldstein seems to imagine (as many reviewers have) that this is merely a superficial satire of haute bourgeois manners.  Which, yes, it is; this particular God has only dark secrets, not deep ones.  But Reza's targets are far more varied than is at first apparent; like Ben Jonson, she's a kind of monomaniac who stretches a single theme over the entire world.  The only real interest in her play, in fact, lies in the way it works its gimmick ("Surprise!  The God of Carnage!") through a strikingly wide variety of permutations.  First we get the expected couple-on-couple coup d'etat; but Reza then unfurls a whole panoply of battle royales: we get gender-on-gender, conservative-on-liberal, and husband-on-wife; even (metaphorically) gay-on-straight (and top-on-bottom!).  Enemies morph into allies, but then switch back again - soon these yuppies are all but dashing back and forth across the battle lines.  And Reza goes global, too, balancing cynical exploitation of a pharmaceutical scandal with self-serving concerns over starvation in Darfur (discussed over tasty clafoutis); by the finale, we're surprised the tulips haven't taken sides.   Thus the script is rather like that paper-fortune-teller game kids used to play (appropriately enough) on the playground; Reza keeps folding and unfolding her basic quartet into different combinations, but an angry id pops out every time, erupting from the characters like so much projectile vomit (yes, be warned).

Limning all the tiny fissures that will crack open into all those open conflicts, however, requires very precise casting, and a very agile set of farceurs (for in the end this is a farce, based on anger, or maybe disgust, rather than sex).  We have to feel in our bones precisely how these husbands and wives are oppressing each other, as well as how they're oppressing the world at large - and how they both deny that; and then we need a team of actors who can physically deliver a mounting sense of chaos with glittering precision.

And there's just enough imprecision in this casting, and just a few too many mis-steps in the acting, for the Huntington version to not quite gleam as it should.  We sense immediately, for instance, that Brooks Ashmanskas (Alan) and Christy Pusz (Annette) are gifted  physical comedians (well, we already knew that in the case of Ashmankas, but don't worry, he's quite disciplined here) -  and, alas, that Johanna Day and Stephen Bogardus, as their antagonists, Veronica and Michael, are not.  Strangely, however, it's Day who gives the best, most carefully-thought-through performance; if there were just a slightly-sharper comic twist to her wounded, pseudo-concerned presence, Day would be in clover (as it is, she carries the show anyway).  In an intriguing contrast, Pusz and Ashmanskas are physically far wittier, and all but beam with satiric energy, giving everything they do a delicious spin; but their relationship just doesn't have the sexist (dare I say Gallic?) cast that it should have (which is to say I think Annette should be sickened for reasons beyond Veronica's hypocritical clafoutis).  The slight class differences between the two couples are likewise not precisely defined (no, they're not exactly on the same level, and they got where they are in very different ways), and Stephen Bogardus's rather weakly acted Michael simply isn't as whipped as he should at first appear (sorry, that's Reza's intent), so his later explosion into Neanderthalism doesn't have the sense of release required to make us laugh.  In short, these couples should orbit each other like ironic mirrors - and so far, they don't.

Taken together, such gaps mean the show feels muzzled somehow, and so we get a little bored, and begin to ponder the other gods that govern human nature, in addition to that of carnage (like the god of porcelain, whom the characters occasionally worship).  Reza does nod to such deities here and there, it's true; in fact, perhaps the play's most touching moment occurs when loutish, "honest" Alan, abashed at last, silently begins to pick up after himself for the first time.  If only Reza had ventured a little further down these thematic by-roads, she might have written a major play, instead of what amounts to a smart little circus act.  Which may explain the production's color scheme; Dane Laffrey's yellow atrium seems meant as a wicked ref to Parisian moderne (Reza's original text was in French, and premiered in Paris), but alas, this doesn't map to the Cobble Hill, Brooklyn neighborhood-amalgam that Christopher Hampton's apt translation conjures.  But then director Goldstein's productions rarely look good; another reason why I left wondering whether the Huntington should be in a hurry to invite him back.  With so much of this show almost in place, I think you have to look in his direction to explain why in the end this God isn't quite divine.

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