Wednesday, March 17, 2010

God of Carnage

There is a very specific chatter that takes place in the opening dialogue of God of Carnage that sets the audience on an unnerving tilt between fear and laughter. It pointedly mocks every overheard conversation ever to have taken place between the Brooklyn-professionals-originally-hailing-from-somewhere-in-New-England-stroller set.

If you have ever been to a gentrified Brooklyn playground, you know to what I'm referring... the small talk, the found energy, the obligatory exchange of pleasantries over a stunning yet thrown together backdrop. Your tulips are lovely; I ADORE Frances Bacon; do you have any other children?; it's the Korean deli on the corner, you know the one? It's so funny when regurgitated on stage. I could have watched entire play of that, to be honest--simple observations subtlety replayed.

However, the tone shifted quickly-- almost too quickly-- from compliments and thank yous to hysteria and name calling, just as we knew it would. (The first Lucy Liu cell phone outrage at her husband came too soon. She leaked that anger before it was necessary, I wish they had kept the audience at 'polite tension' a bit longer. Moving on.) God of Carnage is the story of two couples coming together over a playground brawl between their eleven year old sons. Both sides thought it civil to meet and discuss what happened (two teeth knocked out and an apparent name-calling boys gang), and decide how to proceed moving forward.

The entire 90 min play is acted in one long scene without an intermission. The stage is washed in a stark red lacquer (can you use the word 'stark' to describe 'red'?) with a minimal set that forms a Cobble Hill apartment. A modern design sofa with a generous offering of African print throw pillows sits center; book-ending side tables with large vases of white tulips; a massive coffee table housing stacks of art books; and a telephone.

It isn't a set as much as it is a collection of props, and time can actually be measured by the number of items left untouched. The books went first in a spray of vomit (I kid you not, it was awesome), then the side table hiding a bottle of rum, the plates, the cups, the cell phone... Those perfect white tulips were the last to go-- spraying hysterically and wonderously in a fountain of green and and white and water by Ms. Liu upon her final cracking.

The characters took their turns dropping as well. They each hosted a monologue of sorts that revealed an inner madness, each more poignant than the next. Liu, as Annette, had the best monologue, I'm just going to put that out there. Maybe not the best acting, but she had the most to work with and the stage direction and pace were impeccable. She circled the room while her three comrades lay like fallen soldiers, addressing them in turn (Well, Veronica was standing, but slumped facing the wall). Annette started seated against a side table and ended in the same spot and same pose-- a classic theatrical two-step but it worked.

The story itself circled around a constant trading of alliances. This, my friends, is why 90 min of constant conflict was bearable. Yes, the comedy helped most of all, but the switching of sides made what was essentially an ever growing fight interesting. The couples riffed against each other, then the women took sides, then someone poured someone else a drink, and shuffle-ball-change, we got a break and some breathing room and could move onto another layer of id and ego and primal understanding.

Remember those African print pillows? The Frances Bacon book? It's all intentional. Each word, each prop, each movement points toward a central theme that gets to the gut of humanity. It's all there for a reason-- so perfect it makes my teeth hurt.

I loved this play. Loved it. I didn't know what I was getting into upon arrival (I was picturing something more Tony Soprano. James Gandolfini + the word 'carnage' just doesn't read Cobble Hill proper to me.) and I don't remember the last time I was that engaged with a story on Broadway.

...And later that evening, a bit further downtown, two more Brooklyn professionals acted our their own little comedic tragedy. What started out as a standard evening of theater-and-conversation morphed into something else entirely. That happy little game of verbal ping-pong, dueling wit, and intermittent jukebox snapping suddenly collapsed into a pile of dirty laundry, prime for the taking. You see, that's the thing about New York and its people-- in the end we all want to rip tulips from water. And whether or not we chose to admit it, we like the game and will take carnage over ping-pong any day.

*Note: The cast I saw was Jeff Daniels (in the Gandolfini role,) Dylan Baker, Lucy Liu, and Janet McTeer, but there weren't any photos of this cast online. I have been told that the original cast was better, as usually happens, but I didn't see that cast and I thought that this one worked well.

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