If you ask me…

- Tom Holehan

“Carnage” Stumbles in Westport  

 

Playwright Yasmina Reza created a regional theatre’s dream with “God of Carnage”, her Tony Award winning, one-set, four-character contemporary comedy of bad manners that is one of the most popular plays currently being produced across the country. It offers – in just 90 minutes (without intermission) -- great writing and four juicy roles that attracted no less than the late, great James Gandolfini during its Broadway run. The play is currently on the boards at Westport’s Music Theatre of Connecticut but, sad to report, it is not a comfortable fit.

The basic premise for “God of Carnage” concerns two sets of parents who meet to discuss a playground incident that resulted in the injury of one of their sons. Reza’s black comedy starts with the utmost of civility as the upper-class couples use careful language and strain to be polite. Once dessert is served and the rum is poured, however, the adults revert to their childhoods with all the pettiness and comic brutality that comes with it. Bad behavior rears its ugly head as parental disputes reverse to a battle of the sexes and then back again. Reza’s brilliant conceit is that when pushed and confronted it is eventually very hard to control our animal origins. Like mother lions, we will protect our young to the death.

One of the charms and big challenges of producing theatre in MTC’s extremely intimate setting (two rows, 45 seats) is finding the right material that comfortably fits within the confines of the company’s limited space. “Carnage” would appear to be an ideal candidate but under Mark Torres’ blunt direction the actors -- John Flaherty as a lawyer who can’t stop answering his cell phone, Marty Bongfeldt as his nervous wife whose stomach problems produce the most talked-about scene from the play, Cynthia Hannah as the passive/aggressive peacemaker and Jim Schilling as her blue collar husband -- are apparently given free reign resulting in a production that is always loud and antic but rarely funny.

At MTC, a lack of subtlety also drains the play of its power and purpose and the majority of the actors just seem too big for the room. At one point Jim Schilling, as the self-proclaimed Neanderthal of the group, proceeds to demonstrate that fact by pulling out his shirt tails, mussing his hair and displaying an ape stance. It’s the kind of relentless mugging that has little relation to the play and no business in a professional theatre. The women are similarly misdirected with Hannah struggling mightily against type and Bongfeldt way over the line once the rum starts flowing. Only Mr. Flaherty seems to strike a good balance between the outraged and the outrageous.

The living room setting by David Heuvelman doesn’t really suggest upscale New Yorkers with its worn leather furniture and the curious addition of a dated princess phone on the end table. Diane Vanderkroef’s costuming is serviceable though Hannah’s outfit lacks sophistication. But ultimately the look of this “Carnage” is not the problem. The approach taken to the material is where it goes seriously wrong.

“God of Carnage” continues at the Music Theatre of Connecticut in Westport through February 16th. For further information call the theatre box office at 203.454.3883 X10 or visit: www.musictheatreofct.com. Note: The best news coming out of MTC these days is the announcement that the theatre will be moving to a brand new facility on the Post Road in Norwalk this August with enhanced seating for 120.  Stay tuned…

Tom Holehan is one of the original founders of the Connecticut Critics Circle, a frequent contributor to WPKN Radio’s “State of the Arts” program and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company. He welcomes comments at: tholehan@yahoo.com. His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.

 

Posted on 2.11.2014


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