“Man dug up demons' hoaxes there,
Considered his lust heaven,
His illusion he decreed creative,
He assumed the moment deathless.
Life to him is an enormous weight
As down there the dead bee's wing
To the ant that drags it.”
-Giuseppe Ungaretti, “Prayer” trans. Andrew Frisardi
Few things are better when you love the culture of a town than seeing the heavyweights continuing to do big things and newcomers making their presence felt with full authority at the same time. And I'm happy to report, that in a week also including Available Light announcing a 2012–2013 season that has me drooling and Catco annoucing a 2012–2013 season that has me more excited than any of theirs in years, A. and I hit New Players Theater for the first of their productions we've gotten the chance to see, the central Ohio premier of Yasimna Reza's God of Carnage.
I'd read the Christopher Hampton translation of the play being done here that was such a rage on Broadway and the West End but my trips to New York that year didn't coincide with its run, so this was the first time I'd seen it performed and it's a knockout, bravura performance.
Reza's play is that kind of bitter, brittle comedy that needs to be played with utter seriousness and a lack of self-awareness for the punchlines to work, stirring humanity into that mix can spoil the whole cheese if not done in perfect amounts, but leaving it out just makes the whole thing taste sour and gray. I'm happy to say this production takes those tricky emotional notes and spins them sideways sometimes, in danger of tipping over, but they always end up exactly where they should.
Matt Hermes' direction of this is marvelous, devoting enough attention to the details – the tiny gears of the timebomb – but never losing sight of the full picture in a narrative sense or a physical sense. The actors are constantly keeping each other at a distance and hemming each other in, the Brooklyn apartment is the world and the ways he gets around the question any audience member would ask “Jesus, why don't they just leave?” is part sleight of hand and party simple choreography but it's breathtaking. And of course, the other reason they're not leaving is the intense sexual energy coursing through this; at any moment you feel like the rare spate of coming to blows could just as easily be the rending of garments except for those last vestiges of civilization, reminding me of the Goldbarth poem “Civilized Life”. Attention should also be paid to the costumes by Michelle Whited and the set design (I apologize, I can't find my program anywhere so can't credit this person), the animal prints are a nice touch with the African art and the '60s-style modern features.
Of course, any comedy of four people in a room for an uninterrupted hour and a half is going to live and die by its performances and here New Players Theater really hits it out of the park. Nick Baldasare, recently seen as Actors' Theatre's Oedipus and Tim Browning, recently very good in Available Light's metaphysical whirlpool Hum, are pitch perfect as the yin-yang figures of Modern Man. Both physical performances and both Rorschach tests, looking more or less sympathetic based on the audience's built in prejudice and experiences but both glowing with a likability that's not easy to pull off in these rapid fire exchanges while behaving so badly. Sonda Staley's character has the widest range of responses and done at whiplash speeds but somehow keeps a core humanity for the wildness to orbit around. Jill Taylor veers a little toward the cartoony at times but if your weak link is as good as that no one has anything to complain about.
If you like contemporary theater, go see this, it takes strong material and knows exactly where to hit it so the reverberations make you laugh and shudder and gasp.