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Review: Dallas Theater Center's 'God of Carnage'
by Jerome Weeks 25 May 2012

God of Carnage has become a worldwide hit (and a Polanski film). So maybe it’s not a surprise it isn’t particularly profound: People can shed their manners and turn into animals — really? Doesn’t matter. It’s still funny.

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Sharing some fine old rum and sexism: Hassan El-Amin and Chris Hury (left to right) in the Dallas Theater Center’s God of Carnage

At the Dallas Theater Center, French playwright Yasmina Reza’s comedy, God of Carnage, finds two respectable couples tearing into each other over their sons’ schoolyard fight. In his review, KERA’s Jerome Weeks calls the play just a bigger, better schoolyard fight.

  • Dallas Morning News review (pay wall)
  • KERA radio review:
  • Expanded online review:

The past four years, God of Carnage has become a hit in theaters worldwide – and has been turned into a Roman Polanski film. It’s not a particularly profound comedy. Critics have hailed how it reveals what a thin veneer civility is, how easily we all revert to animal aggression. Right.  That’s what many comedies do. You could say the same thing about Moliere’s Tartuffe or Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple — or last week’s episode of 30 Rock.

For that matter, two couples ripping into each other? God of Carnage can play like a pint-sized version of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

So it isn’t all that deep. But it’s still pretty funny. The parents of the young victim in that playground fight — Michael and Annette — have called a meeting in their arty, upscale apartment. [If you’re interested, see the note below about the set and the color-blind casting.] And they’re feeling a little too self-satisfied with how reasonable they’re being. The other parents — Alan and Veronica — are rightly embarrassed by their son’s violent behavior but a little defensive as well. At the Dallas Theater Center, here’s Sally Nystuen-Vahle as the apologetic mother:

Nystuen-Vahle: “We appreciate the fact that you’re trying to calm this situation down rather than exacerbate it. If Henry had broken two of Benjamin’s teeth, I’m not at all certain that Alan and I would have been so … broadminded.”

Hassan El-Amin: “‘Course you would.”

Chris Hury: “She’s right. Not at all certain.”  [laughter]

That last actor is Chris Hury. He plays Sally’s husband, who’s everyone’s favorite villain these days: a smug, hotshot lawyer with a constantly ringing cellphone and a seriously negligent company for a client. It’s one of the best roles Hury has had in Dallas and he practically gleams in all of its unapologetic cynicism.

In fact, the laughs in God of Carnage really kick in only when the gloves come off, only when the rum’s served and the rudeness starts. As a comedy of contemporary manners, the play satirizes our empty courtesies, but much of its exuberant energy and certainly some of our pleasure come from when all the buried resentments are finally let out to play.

Christie Vela: “Anyway, Why can’t we take things more lightly? Why does everything have to be so exhausting?”

Chris Hury: “You think too much. Women – think too much.”

[laughter, cross-talk, applause]

Hassan El-Amin: “You see what I have to live with — ?

Vela: “SHUT UP! Just shut up! I detest this pathetic complicity. YOU disgust me.”

El-Amin: “Oh, c’mon! Have a sense of humor!”

Christie Vela: “I don’t have a sense of humor and I have no intention of acquiring one.”

Before the deluge: Hury and Sally Nystuen-Vahle at the Dallas Theater Center

If Reza’s not deep, she is smart. She links this domestic dispute with corporate misbehavior, with international crises and gender politics, even with our mistreatment of family pets. All of our lives are counterbalanced between tyranny and submission, obedience and indulgence. Reza is also scrupulously fair. Everyone gets to lash out, everyone gets slammed. And you will recognize your own failings somewhere in this mixed martial-arts marital match-up.

The men, for instance, say the worst things. They give the old, dumb justifications about our need to be cavemen, they reflect fondly on their own childhood gangs. But it’s the women who get physical, throwing things and trashing things.

The Theater Center cast has been expertly directed by Joel Ferrell; they make an effective wrecking crew. One reason this play works (and is so popular): Reza gives each actor the splendid chance to be both modest and outraged. Only Hassan El-Amin doesn’t exploit this contrast to its full comic potential. It’s funniest when the mouse roars (and starts passing out the rum and cigars), but El-Amin is never that much of a mouse.

At 80 minutes, God of Carnage is a short, swift, enjoyable brawl. Reza shows how everything human gets reduced to a schoolyard face-off – and then she doesn’t have much more to say.

But think of that this way: It just gives you and your date more time to argue about the play.

All images by Karen Almond

____________________________________________________

The set and the color-blind casting.

Much comment has been made of designer John Arnone’s set, mostly because of the retina-searing red couches but also the African statuary and dyed fabrics and the impressive set of elephant tusks — which get spotlit by lighting designer Natalie Robin, just as the lights go down and the play begins. In case we overlooked them.

As Lawson Taitte notes (pay wall), Arnone and director Joel Ferrell have made the apartment fireplace into a looming altar to some ‘dark deity.’ For their apartment decor, other theater companies — and the Polanski film — have employed lots of books and the occasional artistic African prop. But Arnone and Ferrell have taken the basic script information — Annette is writing a book about Darfur and is passionately interested in art (her coffee table is covered in fine art books) — and expanded it into a big, bold set design statement.

Hmm.

This design statement can easily be construed as implying that African tribal figures represent grim, primal, destructive forces: the gods of carnage demanding sacrifice. In fact, this is pretty much how Mark Lowry reads it (although Mark also seems to think we can revert to the Neanderthal lurking inside us, when we never were Neanderthals). Needless to say, this African-gods-of-carnage reflects a Eurocentric set of mistaken assumptions: that African art and African religions are ‘primitive,’ they’re closer to the violent and the ancient, etc. — when they’re no more ‘primitive’ or violent than the Bible.

Think of it this way: Would audience members ‘read’ that design the same way if there were a large, bloody crucifix over the fireplace? Would they assume that this was a ‘god of carnage’ representing our more savage instincts?

You can believe, as I’d like to, that Ferrell offsets such a Eurocentric interpretation by scoring this pre-show moment with Baroque-sounding music — instead of, thank goodness, playing something like ominous ‘jungle drums’ (the sound design is by Bruce Richardson). Meaning, the gods are being honored with ‘royal’ music, music that is just as tied up with the prerequisites of power and obedience.

Or much more likely, you can take the Baroque music as the ‘counter’ to the African gods. It represents our thin veneer of ‘civilization’ — white Europe set against ‘darkest Africa.’

If we take all of this interpretation as accurate, it complicates, in an interesting fashion, the color-blind casting of African-American actor Hassan El-Amin as Michael. The role isn’t specified white or black, although, no surprise, it’s generally cast as white. (Earlier this year, Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre presented what was billed as the first all-African-American God of Carnage.) El-Amin’s presence as Michael — added to wife Annette”s interest in Darfur and African art — gives an even more political, nasty edge to Alan’s dismissal of Darfur as just another massacre, right to Michael and Annette’s faces.

So on the one hand, the Theater Center production offers a simplistic, inaccurate treatment of African imagery while on the other, it amplifies our sympathy for Michael and Annette (or ramps up our irritation with the appallingly arrogant Alan). At that moment, one may well expect that there’ll be more such racially pointed exchanges between the couples — or dialogue that can now be heard in this light — but the script fails to provide any.

That’s too bad because, as a number of critics have pointed out, Reza carefully makes sure other combinations of Us Against Them are played out in the couples’ freewheeling arguments: men vs. women, spouse vs. spouse, liberal vs. conservative. So why not white vs. black? And even white vs. brown, considering Christie Vela as Annette? The Theater Center casting has actually opened up Reza’s we-are-all-animals-beneath-the-skin argument to other, equally valid, racial applications (everyone‘s awful here). Meanwhile, the decor hews to a dated misunderstanding of African culture.

If there are other, convincing ways to read these choices in the set design, lighting design, music and casting, I’m open to considering them.

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