Rochester seems to be growing theater groups left and right, and many of them have adventurous ideas about programming. Good local actors get substantial roles to play, interesting plays get revivals or first local showings, and audiences win. Limelight Productions' current show, Yasmina Reza's "God of Carnage", is an excellent example -- a celebrated, if awfully flawed, play that is well performed.
"God of Carnage" begins with a meeting in a Brooklyn living room between two uneasy married couples; the son of one has recently injured the other in a playground confrontation, knocking out two of his teeth. The parents of the attacker are an arrogant shark of a lawyer (James Heath) and his mousy wife (Gretchen Woodworth), who is "in wealth management"; the victim's father is a wholesaler of household products (Kevin Sean Sweeney) and his mother is "writing a book about Darfur" (a wonderfully dilettantish phrase) and otherwise busies herself working in an-art gallery store (Jennifer Blatto Vallee plays the character). (The characters' names are Alan, Annette, Michael, and Veronica, but I keep thinking of them as Nick, Honey, George, and Martha.)
They initially approach each other with elaborate courtesy, but after a few unguarded phrases, the kid gloves come off and the claws show. Things become progressively less civilized and, to say the least, confrontational as the children are forgotten and the parents' own problems come to the surface. By the end of the play (only 80 minutes long, and without an intermission), all four are humiliated, drunk, and miserable. "What do we know?" asks one character. Blackout. Along the way, unspeakable things are done to a hamster, a cell phone, and a bottle of rum.
Like Reza's other well-known play, "Art", "God of Carnage" has been an international, award-winning success in Paris, London, New York, Serbia, Dubai -- you name it -- and was also adapted into a movie. I was glad of the chance to see it locally, but the play itself seems thin and perfunctory (as did "Art," come to think of it), more an extended, bad-tempered skit than a play. The characters are oddly dislikeable from the beginning, and Reza puts them in some very contrived situations. For example, Alan, the lawyer, is representing a shady pharmaceutical firm peddling a medicine with bad side effects -- which of course Michael's mother has just started taking.
Some of the language doesn't quite ring true, either, though I wonder if this has anything to do with translation: the original play is in French, then was translated into English by Christopher Hampton for London, and it was further Americanized (or to be precise, Brooklynized) for Broadway. (Perhaps it should be further adapted to fit wherever it is being performed; I like the idea of this little nightmare playing out in, say, a Pittsford living room, or in Corn Hill, with references to Trader Joe's and I-490.)
It's interesting to compare "God of Carnage" to Bruce Norris's "Clybourne Park," now playing at Geva; each play could be described (as Reza's play is) as "a comedy of manners without the manners." Both playwrights show how quickly "civilized" language and behavior can deteriorate under pressure. Norris's play raises definite social questions about race and class; some of his characters border on the cartoonish, but they register as real people. "God of Carnage" mostly strikes me as boulevard nihilism: people are animals, says Reza, and that's about that. The play is not terribly funny, not terribly profound, and not as shocking as advertised.
I get the impression that this shallow play works best as a high-powered showcase for its four actors -- each of whom has to do some pretty heavy individual lifting during the play's brief span -- and for a director who can bring them to a fever pitch. The actors in Limelight's production, all very experienced, create a worthy ensemble and do very well at filling out the outlines of the sketchy characters. David Woodworth's direction, however, doesn't give the play the energy and the shape it seems to require. Despite its brevity, it seems leisurely and rambling; much of the intended humor doesn't really land. The several violent confrontations, which must be difficult to stage effectively, are more awkward than surprising.
The theatrically curious will want to catch this famous play and judge it for themselves. But despite its good cast, I found "God of Carnage" to be a disappointment.
This story was edited on February 26 to add the name of actress Jennifer Blatto Vallee.