The comedy’s in the ‘Carnage’ at Artists Rep

The combatants for "God of Carnage" assembled on the battlefield./Photo: Owen Carey

Let’s get this part out of the way from the start: Director Denis Arndt and his cast of Patrick Dizney, Allison Tigard, Michael Mendelson and Trisha Miller have created a delightfully sharp-elbowed production of Yasmina Reza’s “God of Carnage” at Artists Repertory Theatre. It crackles along swiftly, which implies great comic precision, but it still feels unpredictable (a nice accomplishment), and if it never feels exactly dangerous, it may well give you pause on the trip back home: That’s not me, is it? Thundering turtles…

What kind of comedy is it? The sort in which the line, “Every word that comes out of your mouth is destroying me,” is a punchline. And the audience chortles and snorts.

The set-up is simple. The son of the Raleighs, Alan (Mendelson) and Annette (Miller), has hit the son of the Novaks, Michael (Dizney) and Veronica (Tigard), in the mouth with a stick, putting a couple of his teeth at risk. The parents have gathered to clear the air and perhaps affect some sort of reconciliation between the boys. Veronica is the instigator of the meeting, an idealistic act for which she will be punished. The line above? She directs it at her husband toward the end of the play. And she means it.

So right, the meeting doesn’t go well. Lawyer Alan is on the phone all the time with his Big Pharma client, attempting to deal with revelations that one of its drugs has dangerous side effects. And he’s disillusioned about human life on the planet, generally, and about the prospects for his son, “a savage,” in particular. Annette feels abandoned by Alan, of course, who really is always on the phone, and she’s got a good smoulder going coming into the meeting. Michael begins affably and accommodatingly enough, but his own philosophy is very similar to Alan’s, which means he’s not exactly the perfect soul mate for the idealistic Veronica, who, let’s face it, can be gratingly sanctimonious at times.

Pretty soon, the fractures in the marriages and the intense inner discontent of the individuals set the stage for an exploration of contemporary human frailty. It’s funny because those frailties are exaggerated enough to make them ridiculous—and there’s a bit of slapstick thrown in.

What is Reza getting at, though? She’s a French novelist and playwright, and the comedy  undoubtedly plays differently in France. Veronica’s constant appeals to “Western Civilization,” for example, seem far more French than American. America is the place where Western Civilization went to die, consumed by greed, the social contract of Rousseau tossed in the waste can for the adventure of Hobbes’ life in the wild: “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” Our post-apocalyptic science fiction movies, from “Mad Max” on, really describe our own state, in broad strokes. Maybe we’ll be the place where Western Civilization is resurrected, once we’ve seen what we’ve done.

As silly as Veronica sounds, she is the only one operating with a coherent set of values. Alan and Michael are nihilists, a word that is used in the play, again, very French. And Annette is enmeshed in an empty private life.

But really, that describes all of the characters. Bereft of the “social,” reduced to individual neurosis and desire, they are left with…nothing important. And though some accounts of the play have suggested that “God of Carnage” is a demonstration of an instinct to defend our children (Arndt himself referred to its “Mama Bear with bear cub savagery” during his interview with Dmae Roberts on her “Stage and Studio” show on KBOO), to me, the battling kids are just the excuse for “savagery” to ensue. It could just as easily be cutting in line at the theater or a traffic dispute or a casual remark at a dinner party taken the wrong way. Atomized as we are, returning to Hobbes, we are always at war, everyone against everyone, bellum omnium contra omnes, if you’ll excuse the Latin.

Hobbes isn’t French, and I view Reza as a sort of journalist, reporting on her society, in any case. I don’t see her as prescriptive (as I have employed her). Here’s Agnes Poirier in The Independent: “She does what her compatriots do best: she dissects the bourgeoisie with the playfulness and insouciance of a child discovering life by dismembering insects.”  Poirier also points out how indebted Reza is to her translators for her world-wide success (“Art,” especially has proved extremely popular, and “God of Carnage” is headed for the big screen in a production directed by Roman Polanski and starring Kate Winslet and Jody Foster). Christopher Hampton’s translation is superb, by which I simply mean it works superbly on stage.

Could you play “God of Carnage” more for the tragedy (smaller and more naturalistically), less for the comedy? I suspect it would still work, though I’m not sure why you would. The cast seemed to enjoy the rapid currents, the brawl, the double-takes and withering looks, the big reactions and even the tears. Each character has a twisty little path to follow. None of them changes much in the course of the 90 minutes or so (no intermission). In fact, the last line of the play seems to be a sort of re-load for another round, which would turn out just as badly as the first one does, with egos and marriages in tatters.

To circle back to the beginning, the ensemble is terrific. Mendelson is alternately on a tripwire and practically catatonic. Miller makes Annette a tough in-fighter who dissolves but reconstitutes herself several times during the course of the play. Dizney might have revealed his “Neanderthal” side more obviously, but I like his restraint here, as affability gives way to bitterness, without going too far. And Tigard takes a character the audience probably dislikes more than any of the others at the start and makes her more and more sympathetic, which is to say funnier and funnier.

NOTES

Marty Hughley found the same Agnes Poirier article I did for his preview of the show for The Oregonian and adds some more useful context.

I wrote a long account of an interview I had with Arndt, ART artistic director Allen Nause and actor Bill Geisslinger, which somehow seems appropriate here. And here’s a shorter account of that interview, also for The Oregonian.

David Ng interviewed Reza and Hampton for the LA Times:“I would say that above all, my plays are about people who are well-raised but who lose control of themselves. My characters are for the most part impulsive by nature. You could describe my plays as being a theater of nerves.”

And here is LA Times critic Charles McNulty’s take on the play: “This second encounter with the play hasn’t done much to improve my initial estimation of it as essentially a one-joke comedy about the Neanderthal lurking within today’s proudly progressive city-dweller. But any stage work that can bring out the bestial best in James Gandolfini, Marcia Gay Harden, Jeff Daniels and Hope Davis is all right with me, even if it must be said that Matthew Warchus’ concentrated production would have been more at home in a less cavernous environment than the Ahmanson.”

The show continues at ART through October 9.

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