Sunday, March 15, 2009

The God of Carnage vs. Offenbach Overtures

TCH and I watched Yasmina Reza's God of Carnage, translated by Christopher Hampton, directed by Matthew Warchus, at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, on West 45th Street. TCH told me there was some controversy over renaming the theater after some big dead executive rather than after someone in the arts, like a writer, actor or producer. Tidbits of information like this one remind me of worlds beyond my ken. All the stage is a world unto itself.

Christopher Hampton also translated Les Liaisons Dangereuses, which I watched last year. He translated Reza's French play into English for its London production, and then into American for Broadway. Besides references to American places and events--strange I cannot remember any from the play, a fact which perhaps proves these references superficial to the play--the characters swear Americanese. 

Two couples meet to talk about a fight between their sons; their attempt at sweet reason quickly degenerates into verbal, and more than verbal, assaults. Jeff Daniels plays Alan, a ruthless corporate lawyer for a pharmaceutical. Hope David plays Annette, his wife, a well-coiffed woman who likes to smooth all rough edges. On the other side of the ring are Michael, a household goods store owner (played by a tremendous James Gandolfini) and his do-gooder wife, Veronica (played by Marcia Gay Harden). Alliances shift throughout the play; at times, the men gang up against the women, at other times amoral Alan and moralistic Veronica find common ground in their enormous egos while Michael and Annette discover a spongy empathy in each other. 

The men were better actors than the women though the latter came into their own as the play went on. The dialogue was sharp, and its descent into drunken debate convincing and funny (Reza agrees with Matthew Warchus that she writes not sad comedy but "funny tragedy.") Some of its symbols felt heavy-handed. For instance, in an act of helplessness, Annette pukes all over Veronica's treasured art books (representing Civilization), and the latter sprays perfume, like her morals, over the books to get rid of the smell. 

The play flirts with nihilism, but finally dances away from the abyss. It talks about humans being mere animals but in highly civilized tones. It is an eloquent exposition, a well-made play, but it is not a ground-breaking play. I did not feel very much for the four people at the end of the play; I did not much care for what would happen to them afterwards. I would not be so hard on the play if the play did not advertise its ambition so signally. It entertained, but it did not challenge.


The same could be said about the second and third dances in the Paul Taylor program I watched at the New York City Center last night. Changes, a New York premiere, was danced to pop music sung by The Mamas and The Papas. The dance movements were vaguely sixties-ish, but without depth of realization or surprise of renovation. 

The third dance Offenbach Overtures offered a pastiche of classical ballet and the aristocratic tradition (balls, duels, romance) that underwrites it. There were genuinely inventive and witty passages, but a lot more that looked repetitive and uninspired. Infantile was the supposedly comical struggle between the Seconds which distracted attention from the insipid dance competition between the Duelers. 

The first dance Danbury Mix, to the music of Charles Ives (of Danbury, Connecticut, as the program noted) was also not quite satisfying in its inchoateness of meaning. But at least the piece reached for something more than mere replication or pastiche. In its different uses of an individual-versus-the masses format, it explores, to my mind, the meaning of American individualism in a mass democracy. It aims for a degree of abstraction, which I think is crucial for aesthetic power, if dance wishes to move away from (modern and traditional) narration. 

The dancers were committed and enthusiastic. When they danced as a corps, they presented beautiful and vibrant symmetries. What they seemed to lack was charisma. The only dancer who exuded that strange quality was James Samson. His good looks helped, but more than that, his movements were open and embracing at the same time. 

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