Monday, June 1, 2009

God of Carnage and August: Osage County, reviewed

In the June 5 issue of Commonweal -- just in time for the Tonys! -- I review Yasmina Reza's new play God of Carnage, alongside its neighbor on 45th Street, Tracy Letts's August: Osage County. I thought it would be interesting to discuss last year's Best Play winner alongside this year's favorite, especially since August represented a major departure from the formula for success that Reza established back in 1998 with Art. My review is available online for all you nonsubscribers. Here's a taste:
At first God of Carnage pits one couple against the other; then it shifts to a battle of the sexes, with wives aligned against husbands. By the end, each character is alienated, feeling betrayed even by his or her own spouse. “You force yourself to rise above petty-mindedness and you end up humiliated. On your own,” Veronica sulks. Her husband (James Gandolfini) replies gloomily, “We’re always on our own. Everywhere.”

...It is difficult to say whether Reza really believes any of this, and it seems almost beside the point to ask. The play is so thoroughly entertaining that it doesn’t need to be convincing. Reza manages a number of hilarious surprises, and some artful bons mots, as the couples’ predictable conflict unfolds. God of Carnage is a superficial but highly amusing dance of ideas, brought to vivid life by a uniformly excellent cast....

Where God of Carnage is an intellectual diversion, August: Osage County is an emotional workout. Letts’s play is a portrait of a family whose dysfunction takes on every conceivable form: sibling rivalry, suicide, addiction, adultery, incest, jealousy, and greed. The plot is a series of shocking revelations, but nothing that transpires among the Weston siblings and in-laws is quite as astonishing as the cruelty with which the ailing matriarch, Violet, eviscerates her children....

August is more authentic and more satisfying than God of Carnage, but in the end it is not much more profound. The endless, hysterical miseries of the Westons seem constructed to defeat the idea that human fates are determined by any divinity, even a savage one. The play is compelling not because it offers any insights, but because its characters and their suffering are so immediate and real.
Read the whole thing for more on how I think the two plays resonate, and how they differ.

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