Friday, May 06, 2011

Puncturing pretense

On the third day I was in Los Angeles, I finally realized that the Fox Studios backlot was only 2 blocks from my hotel. For two days, I had turned left out of my hotel toward Santa Monica Blvd (a street I can't even say in my head without a melody line, thanks to Sheryl Crow) whenever I went walking or jogging. The last day there I turned right and boom, there was the Fox lot. Not that I could just run right in and wander around, but on my jog that day I did circle around the whole compound and took what opportunities I could to peak in. Mostly, it was lots of golf carts puttering around and lots of numbered buildings. However, when I finally got around to the front gate where people who work there were driving in, I saw someone who looked distinctly like Amber Riley (Mercedes from "Glee") drive right in front of me. That's the story I'm sticking with even if it wasn't her.

This happened the morning after I had several bona fide celebrity encounters at the performance of "God of Carnage" with the original Broadway cast. After the show, I was heading down to retrieve the bag I'd checked and nearly ran head first into John Stamos. I said "excuse me" and sidestepped just in time, but not before taking in his very chiseled good looks and the scary fact that he doesn't look a day over 35 in person even though he is exactly 2 days OLDER than me. Oy.

I inadvertently went by the stage door as I was leaving the theater (I was going to find the bus; I guess all the beautiful people went in the opposite direction). Unlike Broadway where stage doors are swamped after a show, there were only 5 other folks hanging out at the Ahmanson waiting for autographs. So I joined them and soon Jeff Daniels (taller than expected and nice but perfunctory to the fans) and Hope Davis (warm and personable and a little weary perhaps) came out. After another 15 minutes, Marcia Gay Harden came out and seemed like she couldn't light up a smoke fast enough. She had a distinct kind of "old broad" attitude that was refreshing and funny and, even though she was carrying two large handbags full of stuff, she wouldn't accept any help.

As for the show, I'm going to go ahead and do something like a full length review of it because I've got to warm up in preparation for my fellowship thingy in June. I've realized that I'm so stuck in a 400 word box that I'm not sure whether I can write anything longer. So what follows is something close to what I'd write if I was writing for the LA Weekly or some such thing. Feel free to skip it if you've got better things to do.

Though I've only seen two of her plays, it seems clear to me that Yasmina Reza is determined to deflate high-minded intellectualism, exposing, as it were, the Bugs Bunny cartoon that lies just beneath the surface of every opera. "Art" is precipitated by the consideration of sophisticated modern art but devolves into various hijinks and pratfalls. Similarly, "God of Carnage" begins with the most civilized of discussions between well-mannered adults but it quickly become clear how close each of the four characters is to the edge of barbarism. The infamous (and impressive, stage magic-wise) hurl at the show's midpoint is just one sign-post leading inexorably from blithe discussions of recipes to childish destruction of ornamental flowers.

You probably know the basic story: two couples have come together to discuss a fight between their children. The 11 year-old son of Alan and Annette (Jeff Daniels and Hope Davis) has taken a stick to the son of Michael and Veronica (James Gandolfini and Marcia Gay Harden), knocking out a couple of his teeth. There is no denying the entertainment value Reza skillfully draws from the tension that boils intensely beneath this simple set-up. But her brilliance truly becomes evident as allegiances fray and re-form during the course of the evening, demonstrating a remarkable depth of psychological insight into the dynamics between men and other men, women and other women, and married people of varying degrees of mental health.

Though filled with stars familiar from TV and movie screens, the cast of this production brings an intense theatricality to their roles, none more so than Daniels, who I found mesmerizing as the most nakedly assholish member of the quartet. Playing a lawyer trying to guide a pharmaceutical company through a potential lawsuit, Daniels uses the cell phone calls that regularly interrupt the evening to establish his profoundly cynical personality, which sets the stage for him to bond with kindred spirit, Michael. Gandolfini successfully escapes the bonds of his most famous role; when Michael finally untucks his shirt - a move that could be threatening coming from Tony Soprano - it's a signal of his resignation and frustration, not of impending violence.

Davis is slight and brittle on stage (seeing her afterwards in jeans and a loose sweater was like meeting a different person) and she traverses the highest highs and lowest lows here while never losing her bearings. Perhaps it's because her character ends up being the only one who doesn't seem to lose sight of the children that prompted the meeting in the first place. Harden has a somewhat thankless role, her Veronica clearly Reza's stand-in for deluded, righteous, and oversensitive do-gooders everywhere. Honestly, though she was excellent in the role, I'm surprised she was the one that one the Tony.

I laughed often and heartily throughout "Carnage" and not just at the slapsticky moments but also at Reza's unflinching disdain for pretense. However, I also tasted a little bile of bitterness seeping in by the play's conclusion, never a charming sensation. Michael's lament that "children devour your lives, and then they kill you" seems overwrought when he says it. But later you realize it's just a precursor to soften you up for the ugly epithets that will fly before the end. I think I would like Reza's plays better if I felt she left even the residue of sympathy somewhere in her characterizations. That the audience comes to consider Alan the only vestige of restraint is telling.

The production shines from a technical stand-point, with the subtle lighting design a particular stand-out. It was satisfying to me that even a big fancy Los Angeles theater can have trouble with sound design, as I heard a few people complain on the way out about not being able to hear certain lines.

In the end, I feel pretty profoundly lucky to have seen this production. I may not worship at the temple of this particular "God," but I had a fabulous time visiting it just the same

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