God of Carnage opened last night at Gulfshore Playhouse to an enthusiastic and laugh-happy crowd. Unfortunately, I didn’t share in their amusement.
Written by the Tony Award winning French playwright Yasmina Reza, God of Carnage is a darkly comic drama about an afternoon that goes terribly wrong when two couples meet to discuss an unfortunate incident at a public park involving their 11-year-old sons.
Translated by Christopher Hampton, God of Carnage premiered on Broadway in 2009 winning Tony Awards for Best Play, Best Direction and Best Leading Actress.
The script is arguably one of the strongest contemporary works of our time, dealing with important themes such as violence, tolerance, civility and human nature. The brilliance of Reza’s script lies in her handling of these heavy themes with a comedic undertone that leaves you laughing one minute and thinking the next. With a talented cast and a script this well written and structured, it would be hard to not have a brilliant production of this play. So what went wrong? The direction.
Cody Nickell makes his Southwest Florida directing debut with God of Carnage, and unfortunately doesn’t seem to trust the material enough to let it sing on its own. Filled with physical bits and moments played for cheap laughs, one almost wonders if this is a farce or a musical comedy. It’s as if these very talented actors where told to ignore their instincts at all costs and always go for the laugh. Whether it’s based in reality or not, go for the laugh.
For example: When Annette (Laura Faye Smith) empties vomit out of not one but both of her shoes, it gets a laugh...both times. But did vomit actually come out of these shoes? No, it was mimed and clearly engineered for a laugh. When Veronica (Brigitte Viellieu-Davis) enters the living room with cologne to salvage her beloved art books, she takes a moment to spray down Annette with all the flair of broad musical comedy. Did it get a laugh? Certainly. But the character wouldn’t have been bothered with this distraction; all she cares about in that moment is her beloved and destroyed treasure. When Annette begins to make strangely unscripted drunken advances on Michael (Scott Greer), she begins to create a sexual sight gag out of a rum bottle. In that moment, I couldn’t help wondering if the director said: “This monologue is really boring and unimportant, lets do something to distract the audience.” Michael (Greer), who according to his wife apparently can’t find the energy to do much of anything exciting anymore, somehow finds the unmotivated energy to jump on all fours on the couch like a sexy dog to imitate his houseguests. This of course is only a small sampling of the unbelievably broad antics of Nickell’s cast. I’m actually shocked that a well-timed spit take didn’t make it into the mix.
You might be thinking, “So what? A laughs, a laugh!” But unfortunately, in this case it’s not. Because if we don’t believe at the beginning of this 90 minute journey that these are very real and very believable people, then we can’t take the rants and childlike behavior that is to come seriously at all. If we as an audience can’t see the real sadness in these character's eventual breakdowns then the play has failed. Yes, these are phony and disingenuous people but they don’t know it. They believe in their fake ideals no matter how misguided they may be. And in that ignorance lies all the humor.
Yasmina Reza is not known for creating comedic characters. She is known for creating extremely real and flawed characters that in their truth are incredibly comedic. There is a very nuanced but very real difference there. It is unfortunate that Nickell could not make heads or tails of this…because he had the talent in his cast to deliver it flawlessly.
All of this said, the opening night audience loved the show. They laughed at every intended joke, and at every invented moment of physical humor. And chances are, you will to. But don’t be surprised if you laugh the whole 90 minutes, and then leave wondering, “What was the point of it all?”