Tuesday, March 24, 2009

mathematics of farce


Taking our resentments from the attics
of our brains to understand the farce
we make of life depends on mathematics
that causes us to fall upon our arse
unless we can not only understand the math,
but solve equations that have no solutions,
transforming vinegar and grapes of wrath
by means of comedy and convolutions
that make, if you are rational, little sense.
Instead of intellect we have to turn
to laughter sitting on a funny fence,
as objective as a Grecian urn,
making some additions that amuse,
and subtracting parts that seem recessive,
not multiplying problems to accuse
your friends who seem divided and regressive.

Inspired by Ben Brantley’s review of Yazmina Reza’s “God of Carnage” (“Rumble in the Living Room,” NYT, March 23, 2009):

Never underestimate the pleasure of watching really good actors behaving terribly. Of course you can experience such a spectacle every year around Oscar time. But there is a more sophisticated version of this spectator sport, in which highly skilled stage performers take on roles that allow them to rip the stuffing out of one another, tear up the scenery, stomp on their own vanity and have the time of their lives. That’s what Jeff Daniels, Hope Davis, James Gandolfini and Marcia Gay Harden are up to at the Bernard Jacobs Theater, where Yasmina Reza’s “God of Carnage” opened Sunday night under the extremely savvy direction of Matthew Warchus. And their performances in Ms. Reza’s streamlined anatomy of the human animal incite the kind of laughter that comes from the gut, as involuntary as hiccups or belching. Examined coldly, this 90-minute play about two couples who meet to discuss a playground fight between two of their children isn’t much more than a sustained Punch and Judy show, dressed to impress with sociological accessories. But there’s a reason that Punch and Judy’s avatars have fascinated audiences for so many centuries in cultural forms low (“The Honeymooners” of 1950s television) and high (Edward Albee’s 1962 drama “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”). “God of Carnage,” which is poised somewhere in between, definitely delivers the cathartic release of watching other people’s marriages go boom. A study in the tension between civilized surface and savage instinct, this play (which recently won the Olivier Award in London for best new comedy) is itself a satisfyingly primitive entertainment with an intellectual veneer….
But give full credit to Mr. Warchus, who staged Ms. Reza’s “Art” and “Life x 3” on Broadway and knows that words are to physical comedy what step-by-step drawings of footprints are to dancing. It’s the bodies in motion that count. Mr. Warchus is the man who transformed the sniggering 1960s sex comedy “Boeing-Boeing” into one of last season’s great delights on Broadway, and I can’t think of another working director who better understands the higher mathematics of farce. Working with the designers Mark Thompson (set and costumes) and Hugh Vanstone (lighting), Mr. Warchus has created an eloquent blend of the chthonic (blood-red background, cracked-mud walls) and the civilized (minimalist furniture, exquisite vases of tulips). The show’s very look predicts what’s going to happen, and you can imagine where those tulips will wind up. What you can’t imagine is the artful course that Mr. Warchus and his performers take. “God of Carnage” may be a familiar comic journey from A to B, but it travels first class.

© 2009 Gershon Hepner 3/23/09

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