Toronto missed the moment on Yasmina Reza’s God of Carnage.
The French playwright’s comedy about a confrontation between two couples who meet after their 11-year-olds have a violent scuffle in a park has been conquering the world since its 2006 premiere in Zurich.
Veronica (Linda Kash) and her husband Michael (Tony Nappo) have the moral high ground – it’s their boy who lost two teeth – and home-court advantage. They’ve invited Annette (Sarah Orenstein) and Alan (John Bourgeois, worth casting for his name alone) over to their apartment to discuss the damage and repercussions in a civilized manner: No police, no principals, no lawyers.
But the upper-middle-class couples are on a collision course: Veronica is a humanitarian writer who has penned a book on Darfur, while Alan is a corporate lawyer working for the pharmaceutical industry. They get under each other’s skin pretty quickly.
If you’ve ever seen a play, you’ll see where this is going – the coffees are exchanged for rum and the adults gradually begin to behave like children. Reza does offer a couple of clever twists on the verbal assaults, however, as well as moments of carnage involving coffee-table books and cellphones that are decidedly cathartic. And it all wraps up in a tidy 90 minutes.
Of the company, Nappo has the most entertaining transformation – he complains he has been “dressed up as a liberal” by his wife but soon removes his jacket and shows his true colours. He stalks the stage with demonic glint in his eye once the disguise is off – and his revelling in the thrill of battle is infectious.
Under the direction of Studio 180’s Joel Greenberg – who covered similar satirical territory with the richer Clybourne Park last year – the entire cast gives solid performances, though Kash’s pique perhaps peaks too soon.
God of Carnage arrives as the first show in the second season of the new Off-Mirvish Series – a series of edgier local and international works that might be called the F-Mirvish Series. (They’re plays that have too many F-words in them for the commercial company’s regular subscription audience.)
Mirvish has had the Toronto English-language rights to Reza’s play for ages, but they waited too long to take advantage of them – it has been everywhere in Canada from Halifax to Vancouver already and made into a movie in the meantime.
The least Torontoian audiences could have got in exchange for the wait was a new localized version of the play. Translator Christopher Hampton has relocated the play from Paris a number of times – to London for the British premiere, to Brooklyn for the Broadway production, to Dublin for the Irish premiere. Here, we get the 2009 Broadway version, though the dialogue retains a French flavour. (No one says “On the contrary!” this much in any part of the English-speaking world.)
Canada has direct links to France – so there’s really no excuse for us to have to import a French play via this route (though, I recognize, there’s an audience here that salivates for anything that comes from New York, or is going there).
More importantly, though, God of Carnage comes to town (in English; it already played here in French in 2011) after two years of national debate over bullying – primarily online – so that makes the play’s scuffle-in-a-park scenario seem out of touch and renders its sardonic tone off-key. The fact that adults can be bullies as well as kids is now a cliché.
With respect to the good production on offer here (and John Thompson’s lovely, red set), the conversation has moved on – and Reza’s “we’re all Neatherthals under the surface” angle seems more reactionary than ever.
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