Sunday, April 19, 2009

New York, Spring 2009 -- Day Three "God of Carnage" and "Mary Stuart"

"God of Carnage"
"Bravado is a kind of courage, isn't it?" This statement, uttered by Veronica, the character played by Marcia Gay Harden, seems to sum up the conflict at the heart of this excellent new play by Yasmina Reza, best-known for her Tony award-winning "Art." (Which didn't really move me, to tell you the truth.)

"God of Carnage" is one of those shows where you rather despise the characters as people, but love them as characters because they entertain. I'd never want to actually be in a room with Veronica, her husband Michael (James Gandolfini), or the couple they have invited into their home, Alan (Jeff Daniels) and Annette (Hope Davis). Michael is a self-confessed "total fucking Neanderthal" and Alan is wedded to his cell phone in the most impolite, self-centered way imaginable. (He's an attorney doing emergency damage control for his client, a drug maker who has been covering up some dangerous side effects of one of their meds.) Annette and Veronica display a tad more humanity, at least in the early going. But by the time the play reaches its exhausting conclusion (in which the characters are completely spent, as though they'd just completed an exceptionally draining four-way), the two wives have displayed quite a bit of false bravado themselves.

The two couples have come together because Annette and Alan's child had attacked Michael and Veronica's son with a stick, knocking out two of the boy's teeth. So yeah, there's some tension in the room.

What's great about the play -- besides four terrific performances from four seasoned pros -- is how the constrictions of the theater help lay bare the insecurities of the characters. How it puts their bravado on display, revealing a terrible lack of courage.

Although it sounds grim, "God of Carnage" is actually quite funny. Hard to imagine how you can milk laughs out of lines like "Every word that comes out of your mouth is destroying me!", but Reza's text (with exceptionally able direction from Matthew Warchus) manages it.

Terrific fun.

"Mary Stuart"
Intrigue never seems to lose its appeal. Subterfuge, double-dealing, mendacity -- all are staples of drama. And all are in full display at this British import that is a revival of Friedrich Schiller's classic play, first performed in 1800. This version is a new translation by Peter Oswald that opened in 2005 at the Donmar Warehouse in London.

The story of Mary, Queen of Scots has been told in many forms (none more to the point than the Monty Python version). Mary Stuart is cousin to Elizabeth I, and pretender to the throne -- though I suppose pretension is in the eye of the beholder. Ostensibly arrested for her role in the murder of her husband, she is held in custody primarily because of her ambition.

Although the rampant duplicity is fun to watch -- and reminds us that lying in the service of blatant self-interest is far older than the Bush administration -- the real draw here are the performances by Janet McTeer at Mary and Harriet Walter as Elizabeth. These are bravura performances, the sort of thing young stage actors ought to study if they want to learn how to hold a large audience in a Broadway theater.

Not many laughs here, but lots to learn.

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