Monday, October 11, 2010

Play: Smart People Acting Stupid

We interrupt this slog through the initiative system for the following review:

God of Carnage by Yasmina Reza, Translated by Christopher Hampton, Directed by Wilson Milam. Seattle REP through 24 October.

The Lovely Bride and I have season tickets for the Seattle Repertory, which means I often see plays that I would not otherwise get out of the house for. Sorry, I don't wake up on a Sunday morning with an overriding desire to watch a play about multigenerational females living in the same house or chance encounters in an Irish pub. Season tickets are already committed to, and just as important, paid for. For the most part, things work out, I pick up some things, and at worst I feel challenged and improved for my participation.

And sometimes it just doesn't work out. God of Carnage is like that.

The play itself is pretty basic. Two couples are brought together by an incident between their children (one thwacked the other with a stick and damaged his teeth). Soon, everything quickly unspools as each character gets to play accuser and accused, alliances form and dissolve, and the kids are quite forgotten, because everyone is shallow and selfish and deeply unhappy. And soon the participants are crushed and screaming and bound together by the experience.

Couple number one is Michael and Veronica Novak (Hans Altiwies and Amy Thone). Michael is a just-folks household-supply store manager. Veronica is a brittle advocate for civilization who is pushed too far. The parents of the other kid are the Raleighs, cell-phone wielding lawyer Alan and vapid wealth-manager Annette (Denis Arndt and Bhama Roget).

And if it sounds like Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolfe by Edward Albee, you aren't the first to pick up on this (both the Lovely Bride and the Seattle Times made the connections). But this is a comedy and the wit is brighter, but at some point you wonder why you are laughing and you feel first sorry and then irritated with them. It's a short play for a reason.

So it's a loss? Not really, because this is an actor's play, and the actors are very, very good. Each one shines in their roll, balancing their virtues and their petty villainy. Hans plays Michael as both agreeable facilitator and repressed thug. Thone as Veronica keeps that knife-point edge, a verbal assault that can go off at any moment. Arndt as Alan is first out of the chute as villain, is both patriarch and patronizing, and shows depth and even affection for the character. And Roget as Annette has great comedic timing and reactions, layering more to what feels like a vacuous character. With takes, double-takes, and nasty slow boils, Roget digs in deep.

The problem is, these characters don't have a lot to do. The point of this type of thing is to keep the motion and emotion rolling forward, not giving the audience the chance to think things through and try to find their own solutions. Characters keep moving towards the door and escape, but that would end the play, so no one ever reaches escape velocity (it is Xeno's Exit - you go but never get there). There are moments when if someone just acts like an adult, things will calm down, but that adult never arrives because if it should, then the play is over as well. So the continual bickering exists as its own reason-for-being, and let nothing set it asunder. It is claustrophobic and painful at the same time, like a horrible meal with horrible people.

So it is a mixed bag - great actors, all of whom have trod the Rep's boards before and all of whom make me happy to see them in a new piece. But the play itself is a bit of stumble (Tony winner be damned), and feels like an echo of the 60s when the idea of squabbling couples on stage was fresher. Now it just leaves me with the feeling of relief for having escaped these horrible people, and thinking unpleasantly of being that petty in the past.

More later,