by Michael Meigs
Zach Theatre's God of Carnage is a beautiful mess.
That's intentional. The set by Michael Raiford is sleekly contemporary with a bold abstract mural inspired by Cy Twombly spread across the back wall. This living room has a stark leather sofa, a Barcelona chair and large pillows in African-style fabrics, all positioned over a striking red floor so highly polished that the characters can probably see themselves in it. Somebody in this family has got money and and a strong sense of design or perhaps has employed a very decided home decorator.
The Zach Theatre is promoting Yasmina Reza's four-character piece as a boisterous farce about sophisticated adults losing it and behaving very badly. We're in the home of the Novaks, Veronica and Michael, whose middle-school-age son had a nasty confrontation with the son of the Raleighs, Alan and Annette. Responding to name-calling, the Raleigh boy bashed the Novak kid in the mouth with a stick, knocking out two teeth.
Now the adults are meeting to discuss the matter and to decide in civilized fashion just what should be done about it.
Hah. Good luck with that, especially when Yasmina Reza is creating you.
Reza writes as if with a razor blade, creating dialogue with dangerous edges that actors love to deliver. She lives in Paris and writes in French but curiously enough, she's far more popular in other countries. She did this gleaming little dissection on commission for a theatre in Switzerland and it was first performed in German.
Davig Ng reported in his 2006 article for the Theatre Communications Group that Reza was startled to find how much English-language audiences laughed when her plays were presented. She told a Los Angeles Times interviewer in 1999, "I would not say I'm not happy to see people laugh, but I would like them to laugh at the right moments," she said. "But you can't direct an audience; they do what they want."
The audience at Zach's Saturday night press opening was indeed ready to guffaw, from the very first minutes of the stiffly courteous discussion between these two sets of parents. The Novaks (Lauren Lane and Thomas Ward) are an art historian writing about atrocities in Darfur and a wholesaler of kitchen equipment; the Raleighs (Eugene Lee and Angela Rawna) are a high-powered international lawyer for a pharmaceutical conglomerate and a "manager of wealth" (presumably her own). The courtesies are elaborate, the setting is Brooklyn and the Americanization is complete. The only hint of the Paris origin is Veronica Novak's pride in presenting her visitors servings of clafoutis, a French dessert of pastry, custard and cherries. Veronica mispronounces it atrociously as "Cla-FOOTE-ey" but even that is in keeping with her pretentiousness.
The women exchange some barbs as they consider just what the offspring should do in order to make peace and restore mutual respect. The guys are clearly there on spousal command. Lawyer Alan is periodically interrupted by calls from his office to his mobile phone about an emergency coverup for a scandal; wholesaler Michael regularly has to take calls from his querelous, ailing mother. The negotiations are getting nowhere fast when a dramatic health emergency really does turn the place into a total mess.
Reza brings these sophisticates rapidly down to the level of their own unruly children. They quarrel, they're rattled by events, they break out some snob connoisseur rum. Each pair of spouses quarrels, delighting the adversary couple; hair gets let down, confrontation turns abruptly physical and an alcoholic looseness sets in.
Director Matt Lenz has a clever, lively cast ringing these changes. Both Lauren Lane as the art aficionado and Angela Rawna as her visitor surprise us with some very funny physical comedy. They're hyped up but in different ways -- Lane like an elder sister losing control on the playground and Rawna like a party girl who made good with her smarts and good looks. Eugene Lee is middle-aged feisty and realistic, while Thomas Ward has the cheer of a big lunk. After some tough verbal confrontations, the husbands get into a boys-will-be-boys attitude and a cavemen's truce is established.
Reza isn't interested in culture clash or racial comedy in this piece. Her original was mercilessly picking apart the very recognizable class of French bourgeois elites. Her approach is cynical and misanthropic, perhaps not surprising in an outsider of Jewish Persian-Hungarian origins who succeeds in the unforgiving literary world of that country.
There's plenty of clash in God of Carnage and there are unexpected turns, including destruction of precious items, self-control and self-esteem. Sometimes it's quite comic and other times it's closer to appalling. Once Reza has pretty much shredded these people's pretensions, she doesn't have anywhere else to go. Alan the lawyer delivers some semi-philosophical remarks about that "god of carnage" reigning over everything, but they ring hollow when the physical losses are a cell phone, an art book, the contents of a purse and an elaborate bouquet of tulips. And the Novak boy's incisors, forgotten in all this set-to.
The action finally just stops. Perhaps these two couples have achieved an unexpected truce and understanding; maybe they've just run out of things to discuss. The story has no resolution -- no dénouement. If only in those last moments, somehow, the two unseen young defendants could have been reintroduced, either verbally or even by appearing, however briefly, perhaps showing a maturity that their elders had so extravagantly forfeited. . . . but that would have been too tidy for Reza and for the Zach's exulting audience. Confusion and rout for the bourgeoisie received boisterous applause.
Review by Cate Blouke for the Statesman's Austin360 Seeing Things blog, December 6
Review by Michael Graupmann at austin.culturemap.com, December 7
Review by Spike Gillespie at her blog Spike Speaks, December 8
Review by Alexandra Bonifield for examiner.com, December 12
Review by Anne Boyd for www.soulciti.com, December 12
Review by Robert Faires in the Austin Chronicle, December 30
Review by Ryan E. Johnson for examiner.com on January 8, closing day of the run
Click to view excerpts from the Zach Theatre program for God of Carnage by Yasmina Reza
Interview of Lauren Lane by Brian Scott Lipton, www.theatremania.com, December 9
Click to go to YouTube for Zach's 30-second promotional video