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: Blackbird (Guild Theater)

 

Romance Interruptus or the Same Old Coitus Interruptus?

 

 Blackbird - Promo 004

  
Guild Theater presents
   
Blackbird
   
Written by David Harrower
Directed by Daniel Scott
at Stage Left Theatre, address (map)
through August 25th  |  tickets: $15  |  more info

reviewed by Paige Listerud

Transgression—punishment—bang! Pitiless! Pitiless! That’s the only way.”
         —Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness

I can’t tell you the extent to which I’ve anticipated reviewing Guild Theater’s production of Blackbird. The success of David Harrower’s 80-minute one-act has been legendary. Winner of the 2007 Olivier Award, critical acclaim on Broadway with Jeff Daniels and Alison Pill, and then local fame generated by Victory Gardens’ superlative production last July, Blackbird was a well-established phenomenon before I stepped through the doors of Stage Left Theatre to see it.

That build-up may have been a little too much for Guild Theater’s Spartan, no-frills rendering. But the problem lies more in Harrower’s basic plot premise and not so much in Daniel Scott’s careful direction or the sincerely wrought performances of David Schaplowsky as Ray and Cassandra Cushman as Una.

A young woman confronts a middle-age man at his workplace; he shows deep anxiety at her presence there and repeatedly asks her to leave. She persists in interrogating him with fragments of past events. It soon becomes clear that they know each other from long ago and the young woman is pursuing with him her unfinished business over a failed relationship. The nature of that relationship reveals its shock, scandal and gravity once the audience learns this couple’s “affair” began when he was 40 and she was 12.

Now as to the “true” nature of their relationship: was it true romance for the both of them or was it child abuse? Was it undeniable passion or overwhelming perversity? Was her interest in him bold, precocious sexuality or was it the vulnerability of childhood loneliness, chaffing under parental oppression? Was his interest in her an inappropriate love he could not master or was it cold, calculated exploitation?

The audience has nothing to rely upon except the fragmented narratives and traded accusations of two unreliable characters. Only one other character enters briefly at the end. The rest is “He Said, She Said,”–only Una was prepubescent when the deed was done. Harrower’s script dangles the audience between the play’s thematic moral absolutes. Is Una a damaged young woman whose innocent childhood was blighted too early, or a bold, sexually rebellious girl whose sexual transgressions went waaay beyond conventional understanding? Was she “asking for it”?

Is she still asking for it by stalking Ray with her confrontation? Is her confrontation about achieving closure or is it about reopening their relationship now that both of them are adults, legally speaking? Is Ray a lying, seducing cad without any moral compass or a repentant sinner striving to adhere to his new, principled life? Can he resist Una’s disturbingly needy bid for his attention and love or will his resistance collapse under replayed memories, emotional immaturity, and unbalanced psychological patterns re-emerging from the depths? Will mad, unbridled and perverse love win again against decency, mental health and morality?

Thus the thematic and ethical juggling of Blackbird leads to its inevitable climax. Or should I say, climax interruptus? Both Cushman and Schaplowsky build deeply sympathetic, if troubling, characters. Scott’s direction emphasizes absolute naturalness and that fits Stage Left’s intimate theater space to a tee. Schaplowsky in particular brings searing emotional exposure to Ray’s troubled soul. Cushman strives to bring psychological verity to Una’s troubled state and Scott’s direction certainly gives the actors the space to grow into these parts. The trouble is that these characters’ troubled souls are dragging on the dramatic pace and Guild’s production lacks the drive that can keep an audience guessing at which moral conundrum will come up next.

Unfortunately Blackbird’s problems are larger than slower-than-necessary, if thoughtful, performances. Essentially, Blackbird is pornography dressed up to look like social consciousness—dressed up perhaps because it thinks its audience will always be polite company. Bad enough that Harrower’s play begins with that stereotypical porn canard—the woman who falls in love with her (statutory) rapist—the whole point of this play’s sojourn is to precisely end up with our star-crossed lovers’ final sexual encounter, which is then immediately thwarted by the entry of Girl (Marrissa Meo – recently seen in the highly-successful 7-month run of Red Twist’s Pillowman). That’s the moment Una and Ray’s psychologically illicit tryst finally falls apart. It’s porn with a conscience but, for all its other stereotypes, Harrower might as well have brought in a character playing the Pizza Guy for good measure.

Let’s be fair. Much more precisely, Blackbird is an almost comically complex melodrama. Comedy, melodrama and pornography are all genres that depend on types for dramatic action more than full-fledged, three-dimensional characters. Those types are put into situations and those situations play out in fairly predictable ways. Blackbird’s ultimate sexual encounter is telegraphed long before the end. One can feel manipulated by all the play’s twisty steps along the way, but ultimately, we’ll get to the porn ending when the woman finally shows she’s wanted her rapist all along. Since they are so true to porn type, can any real connection be built between the audience and these characters? Ray and Una themselves cannot seem to relate to each other beyond type, whether that type is victim and predator or Naughty School Girl and Teacher.

Making it real, making both these characters real enough for the audience to truly care what happens to them, that is the burden that theater artists must bare. Any theater company taking on Blackbird has to battle against the romantic porn fantasy that Harrower sets up at the beginning.

The real pornography of Harrower’s play, however, is not the sex that almost happens between Ray and Una or the sex they had long ago. It’s their wallowing in shame, regret and stifled yearning—that’s the real spectacle put up for our enjoyment. Since few realistic insights about child abuse or under-aged sex can be found here, you’ll excuse me if I turn to the more pleasurable entertainments of “Debbie Does Dallas”.

  
   
Rating: ★★½
  
  

Blackbird features Guild company members Cassandra Cushman and David Schaplowsky, along with Marissa Meo, and is directed by Artistic Director Daniel Scott. Performances will be at 8pm, Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, August 16-18 and 23-25 at Stage Left Theatre, 3408 N. Sheffield, Chicago, IL (map). Tickets are $15 and $10 for industry; reservations may be made by calling (312) 613-8885 or emailing guildtheaterprods@gmail.com. Tickets may also be purchased at the door with cash only. The box office will open at 7:30 on the days of the performance.

Goodman Theatre’s top-notch recruitments

In the world of professional sports (and college sports for that matter), recruitment is everything.  Entire sportscasts are dedicated to the subject of  which team has recruited which top sports talent.  Additionally, successful recruitment is often accredited to successful seasons.

Though the arts are often caricatured as the antithesis of sports, ironically, recruitment of artistic talent can be just as important to successful theatre seasons as they are in sports..

For their upcoming season, the Goodman Theatre has snatched up (i.e. recruited) a number of creative stars:

  • Anna Shapiro – fresh from her Tony Award for August: Osage County, will direct the world premiere of Regina Taylor’s new play, Magnolia, a contemporary take on Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard. (production dates: March 14-April 19, 2009)
  • Jeff Daniels, known for his roles in Terms of Endearment” and “The Purple Rose of Cairo”, has been signed on to star in the world premiere musical-fantasy Turn of the Century, by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice.  (Production dates: September 19-October 26, 2008 )
  • Broadway legend Tommy Tune (9-time Tony Award winner) has been recruited to direct Turn of the Century.  Broadway veteran Rachel York has been cast as the play’s female lead.

I have great confidence that Goodman’s top-notch recruiting will secure a very successful season, both artistically and financially.

h/t Hedy Weiss