Review: God of Carnage (Goodman Theatre)

   
   

‘God of Carnage’, worthy of worship?

  
  

(l to r) Alan (David Pasquesi) tries to comfort his wife Annette (Beth Lacke) as Veronica (Mary Beth Fisher) continues to discuss the argument between their two children. Photo credit Eric Y. Exit

  
Goodman Theatre presents
   
God of Carnage
  
Written by Yasmina Reza
Directed by Rick Snyder
at
Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn (map)
through April 17  |  tickets: $22-$90  |  more info

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

Yasmina Reza’s God of Carnage must be a producer’s wet dream—four actors, one set, and a run time less than 90 minutes. Plus, it’s hyper-relevant to upper-middle class urban professionals. The overall vibe is very similar to Reza’s Art, especially in skewering yuppie lifestyles. It all worked out very well for the Goodman, which snagged the Midwest premier after the Broadway debut won a bevy of Tonys and Broadway in Chicago dropped it from its season. With all the encapsulating hype, Reza’s tight little play (translated and Veronica (Mary Beth Fisher) is horrified as her civil get together turns into chaotic mayhem. Photo credit: Eric Y. Exittweaked for American audiences by Christopher Hampton) is sure to get some butts in the Goodman’s seats. And the production lives up to the hoopla, even though no one in the cast has the national name recognition as Jeff Daniels or James Gandolfini.

The idea Reza plays around with in her play is whether adults and children are really that different, especially when it comes to scuffling. One child whacks another in the face with a stick, knocking out a couple of teeth. We see the obligatory meeting of parents sans children. From the beginning, there’s the awkward conflict between parenting techniques. Add to that the fact that maybe no party is innocent. Of course, things quickly spiral out of control.

To direct this darkly hilarious piece, the Goodman selected Rick Snyder, the same who directed a terrific production of Art at Steppenwolf a couple of seasons back. His experience with Reza shows—he allows his cast to push the humor just enough before becoming too ridiculous.

In the end, God of Carnage is an actors’ show. The New York folks got that when they brought in Gandolfini, Daniels, Marcia Gay Harden, and Hope Davis. Snyder cast his own set of Chicago stage heavyweights: Mary Beth Fisher, Beth Lacke, David Pasquesi, and Keith Kupferer. The foursome has a great thrust and parry with each other—and this is a play where alliances constantly shift and no one is on any one else’s side for very long (even if they’re married to them).

Pasquesi is Alan, a high-profile corporate lawyer, and is married to Annette (Lacke). She’s bothered by his love affair with his Blackberry. The hosts, Veronica (Fisher) and Michael (Kupferer, in the role originated by Gandolfini), are victim to their own neurosis. Veronica writes books about far-away conflicts and buys books about art; Michael sells doorknobs (among other things) and recently tossed the family hamster out on the street. Things really pick up when the liquor starts flowing, a la Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Really, you end up feeling sorry for the unseen children most of all.

Unfortunately, it seems like Snyder holds back, which is the show’s biggest shortcoming. There could be more chaos. I was also hoping for more rolling-on-the-floor laughing moments. The Monday night opening came off as a little Monday-ish. Even in the craziest instants, when things are thrown around or thrown up—the play is a bit unsatisfying. The cast needs to be all-in all the time.

God of Carnage succeeds because it nails the savagery that we all understand. Reza posits that there may not be much of a difference between parks infested with roving gangs of kids or Brooklyn living rooms with cups of espresso and imported rum. She digs under the veneer of modern civilization, and even Veronica, modern civilization’s biggest champion, can’t prevent her passions from slipping out. To insult and question how a person raises their kids is asking for strong responses. But Reza, Snyder, and the cast commit fully to this explosive scenario, and we get to enjoy the fireworks.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

(l to r) Michael (Keith Kupferer) tries to rationalize the situation while speaking to Alan (David Pasquesi) Annette (Beth Lacke) and Veronica (Mary Beth Fisher). Photo credit: Eric Y. Exit

     
     

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REVIEW: Frost/Nixon (TimeLine Theatre)

 

The Man Behind the Monster

 

 Frost (Andrew Carter) interviews Nixon (Terry Hamilton)

   
TimeLine Theatre presents
  
Frost/Nixon
  
Written by Peter Morgan
Directed by
Louis Contey
at
TimeLine Theatre, 615 W. Wellington (map)
through October 10  |  tickets: $18-$38  |  more info

reviewed by Keith Ecker 

It’s not a stretch to cast Richard Nixon as a monster. He was a cantankerous soul who rabble-roused around an unpopular war and abused the presidency to allegedly commit felonious acts. His legacy is a sobering stain on the political landscape that serves as a reminder for others to not blindly trust those we choose to lead.

FrostNixon_101 The real challenge of this work is portraying Nixon as a human being, a man of both wants and desires as well as fears and frustrations. To put it another way, the challenge is to bring out Nixon’s humanity while simultaneously highlighting his treachery.

TimeLine Theatre’s production of Frost/Nixon brilliantly toes this line.

The play details the famous 1977 interview with the disgraced president. Those producing the interview meant for it to be the trial that Nixon never got, thanks to a full pardon by Gerald Ford. Unfortunately, spearheading the questioning was a character with questionable skills—David Frost (Andrew Carter). Frost was an international playboy who hosted successful talk shows in the U.K. and Australia. At one point, he had an unsuccessful run in America. This failure forever nagged him, and so he devised a plan to restore his good name. That plan was to nab the biggest interview of the decade.

Meanwhile, Nixon (Terry Hamilton) was self-sequestered in his California mansion. He was defeated. He had achieved the highest position of public office only to fall so very far. However, word of Frost’s desire to conduct an interview piqued his interest. For one, the financial agreement on the table to secure the interview would make Nixon a very rich man. But moreover, doing a softball interview with a British talk show host could help him restore his good name.

Of course, as history reveals, Nixon agreed to multiple sit-down interviews with Frost. And although the majority of tape captured during these sessions was merely a lesson in Nixon’s uncanny ability to evade tough questioning, it eventually led to a rare and honest glimpse into the mind of a megalomaniac.

This play is nothing without a good Nixon, and Hamilton’s portrayal of the man is executed with great finesse. There is obviously a conscious balance between depicting Nixon as a human and a villain with the ultimate goal to strike at the heart of truth. One way this is accomplished is by subtlety yet powerfully revealing to us Nixon’s insecurities. For example, there is a scene in which Nixon questions whether a pair of laceless Italian shoes is too effeminate for him to wear. In this scene, Hamilton broadcasts Nixon’s childlike need for reassurance, knocking the man down to mortal proportions. It is also fortunate that Hamilton never verges on caricature, opting to veer away from political cartoon. Rather, he aims for documentary.

 

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Director Louis Contey is a real talent. His use of blocking to create dramatic tension between Frost and Nixon is just another pleasurable subtlety of this production. Specifically, his work is highlighted in a scene in which an inebriated Nixon makes a late-night phone call to Frost. Although the two speak from separate locations, Contey puts them in the same space. There they move around each other and glare at one another in a battle of intimidation.

The set design by Keith Pitts also enhances the quality of the production. Large projections, created by Mike Tutaj, are cleverly used to alter the setting, from Nixon’s California home to a trans-Atlantic flight. Televisions flank both sides of the stage where closed-circuit cameras broadcast the historic interview. This gives us, the theater-going audience, a vision of how the medium of television shaped and influenced the interview.

TimeLine Theatre’s Frost/Nixon digs deep into the psyche of one of our most notorious presidents. Yes, Nixon may not have been an honest man, nor was he necessarily a decent or good man. But he was a man. And although this does not forgive his transgressions, it helps us better understand his weaknesses.

Ultimately, TimeLine has created a triumph of a production. Buy your tickets now while seats remain.

   
   
Rating: ★★★★
  
 

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