Yasmina Reza is a French playwright whose works transcend barriers of language and culture to reveal the core of human relationships. She has a gift for lifting the rock of good-mannered stoicism to reveal the baser human emotions squirming just below the surface of our smiles. Her first play, “Conversations After a Burial,” set the theme for most of her other plays, which focus more on conversations than on events or actions.
In her award-winning “Art,” a 15-year friendship among three men unravels when one of them buys an expensive piece of art that is nothing more than a huge white canvas. The purchaser expects his friends to praise his new acquisition, as all good friends should. We all know better than to tell a friend, “That new haircut looks ridiculous.” But here, the conventions are violated. One friend calls the painting nothing but “white shit,” and the conversation devolves from there. Ensuing conversations center on art, but the play is really about friendship and honesty.
In “Life x 3,” one couple invites another couple to dinner, and one of them gets the date wrong. The visitors are expected Saturday, but they arrive on Friday. At the same time, the host is anxiously waiting to hear whether his research paper is going to be published by an academic journal, thereby determining whether he will receive tenure – a hotbed of emotion even when people don’t arrive unexpectedly for dinner. What would you do? Slam the door in their faces? Turn out the lights and pretend not to be home? Cram the toys under the couch cushions and offer the people cheetos and twinkies? The story line is played out three times in three acts with three perspectives and three outcomes. Fascinating and fun.
Reza’s “God of Carnage” (directed by Matthew Warchus) opened at the Bernard Jacobs Theater with a stellar cast (James Gandolfini, star of “The Sopranos,” Jeff Daniels, Marcia Gay Harden, and Hope Davis). It promptly earned six Tony nominations, including best actor nods for all four cast members, as well as best director and best play. I’m always a little reticent when film actors use their· breaks between films or TV seasons to tread the boards, just to feed their egos and please the tourists, especially when one of the actors starred in “Dumb and Dumber.” But in this case all four are brilliant, and the nominations are well deserved.
As “God of Carnage” opens, two calm, civilized, dignified couples, Michael & Veronica (Gandolfini and Harden) and Alan & Annette (Daniels and Davis) sit across from each other in a tastefully decorated living room, cordially discussing a written statement regarding an altercation that has taken place between their two 11-year-old sons. Alan and Annette’s son, “armed with a stick,” has bloodied the lip and knocked out two incisors of Michael and Veronica’s boy. Veronica exhibits magnanimous calm as she reads a prepared statement aloud. When Alan, the stick-wielder’s father, objects to the word “armed” Veronica acquiescently suggests they substitute the phrase “furnished with a stick.” Yes, these four are models of diplomacy.
But then … without denying that his son has hit the other boy, Alan suggests politely, “Might your son have said or done something to instigate our son’s actions?” From there, of course, the politeness ends and the defensiveness begins. By the end of the play all pretenses are gone. As their true feelings surface, these two cordial, liberal, openminded couples scream, cry, chase, hit, and vomit – yes, vomit. Much as we like to think of ourselves as peaceful, reasonable, civilized adults, the truth is, we do not like to accept blame or responsibility. Alan, an attorney representing a pharmaceutical company, is constantly answering his cell phone during the meeting, attempting to ward off an impending lawsuit over unexpected side effects. “Admit nothing!” he repeatedly advises, then returns to defending his son’s alleged integrity.
Years ago, while our family was living in the Bahamas, our 4-year-old daughter was attacked by a neighbor’s dog. (“Might we use the word “bitten” instead of “attacked”?) Her nose was bitten off, and we had to fly her to Miami to have a plastic surgeon restore it. The dog owners graciously offered to pay all the expenses. We magnanimously decided not to sue. A month later, when the doctor bills came due (a mere $1,200 for airfare and deductible – our insurance paid the rest), the man unbelievably responded, “There are two kinds of people in this world, givers and takers. I’m a giver and you’re a taker. I’ll give you this money, but I don’t owe you anything.”
I suppose he had some kind of point. Perhaps our little 4-year-old did do something to incite the dog as the dog’s owner led her by the hand to see the dog’s new puppies. Perhaps she was somehow culpable, just like the injured boy in “God of Carnage” who evidently called the basher “a snitch” just before the boy “furnished” himself with a stick.
Fittingly, the day after I saw “God of Carnage,” I received an email from a friend accusing (informing?) my 4-year old grandson of inappropriate behavior while her 5-year-old old was on a play date at our house. (Playdate is the modern, purportedly civilized version of “Can Jimmy come out and play?”) I had little doubt that my grandson had done what she said he did; he had been going through a phase at the time which, I am happy to say, he has now outgrown. I apologized profusely and all was right again between my friend and me.
Except that I continued to feel bad that it happened, especially on my watch, and worse, that my darling grandson would now be perceived by my friend as less than perfect. And then I caught myself thinking, might the two boys have instigated the behavior together? And the next step: the other boy is older and had undoubtedly gone through the same phase. Might it have been his idea entirely?
These are the kind of thoughts we try so valiantly to hide from one another, the kind of thoughts that Yasmina Reza reveals so honestly in her characters. Laughing at myself, I shook off my defensiveness and sat down to write this review. Therein lies her gift. She magnifies our own foibles, exaggerates them onstage, and in laughing at the antics of the actors, we learn to laugh at ourselves.
No one would actually strew six dozen fresh tulips all over someone’s living room, right? And yet. … once, when my husband sent me a huge flower arrangement to apologize for something egregious he had done, the florist met me at the door with a cheery, “Someone sure does love you!” The implication that $100 worth of flowers could buy my forgiveness angered me so much that I began plucking fistfuls of flowers from the arrangement and strewing them angrily throughout the house, to the shocked amazement of the poor florist. Reza knows her stuff.
So, before the theatrical night is out, these grown-up couples fight, makeup, switch sides, makeup again, and fight some more, behaving like the children they are trying so hard to raise up as mature, well-mannered adults. The irony is never lost in Reza’s plays. The roles are physically demanding, and hilariously revealing, especially as they spar for a bottle of rum that Michael brings out to help calm their tempers. To calm their tempers?
Hang onto your seats. That rock of good-natured stoicism that Reza has lifted might just come flying into the audience.