Last weekend, Acadiana Repertory Theatre marked its second production with another award-winner, God of Carnage by Yasmina Reza. A gripping indictment of civilized manners in an increasingly hectic world, it won the Olivier Award (UK) and the Tony Award (US) for Best Play. Following on the heels of Doubt, another four-character play, ART has produced a highly enjoyable evening directed by Shana LeDet Qualls, and I can summarize the play in these three words: solid, erudite, and rushed. There are three more performances this Thursday, Friday and Saturday at Theatre 810, so please catch this production.
The play consists of two couples, Michael and Veronica Novak, and Alan & Annette Raleigh, who have assembled at the Novak apartment to discuss in a most civilized fashion an incident that occurred between their two sons. Benjamin Raleigh has knocked out two of Henry Novak’s teeth with a stick, and both couples wish to avoid unpleasant accusations and legalities, though accusations will certainly fly later. What begins as a pleasant afternoon to soothe out a sticky situation turns into a vitriolic indictment of nearly everything civilization has to offer. Alliances continually shift in this intermission-less play, and the characters and the audience feel as if they are walking on quicksand, unsure of what bombshell will fall next, and whose side will the characters be on. It reminded me a great deal of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? with the exception that the four characters were more on equal footing.
Shana LeDet Qualls has assembled a fine cast with this quartet, though in some ways, each person on stage could have used a little more refining. As the completely oblivious parent thoroughly wedded to his iPhone, Gabe Ortego captured the lawyer Alan Raleigh quite well. Alan has long ago realized that his son is possibly a thug and may have given up completely on him, but Gabe shows a good understanding that all young men have rites of passage and he even bonds briefly with Bobby Bender over their similar childhood experiences. Elizabeth Satterly as the long suffering Annette Raleigh probably has the most fun when she gets her revenge on her husband, and believe me, the audience is on her side when she does it. Satterly gets to deliver delicious digs at her husband—“Since you’re no use….”—and she relishes those lines, but her slide into drunkenness is somewhat abrupt and needs a little work. The only character in jeans on the stage, Bobby Bender reminds us that his character Michael Novak, is the odd-man out, the Neanderthal in the group, so to speak. He sells household fixtures and does well enough, but compared to the other three, he might as well be the equivalent of the wrong side of the tracks. But Michael has refinements—his taste in cigars and liquor—and at the same time, Michael has fears (he can’t touch rodents and disposes of his daughter’s pet in the more tactless way.) At times, Bobby’s exasperation came naturally, yet at others, it seemed a little forced, but overall it was a sympathetic portrayal of a man just as infuriated with his wife as the Raleighs.
It perhaps isn’t fair to single out Lindsay Fite Finley as Veronica Novak, but it many ways, it’s the character that Yasmina Reza wrote the best. It is not coincidental that though all four Broadway actors were nominated for Tonys, it was Marcia Gay Harden who took home the prize. Veronica Novak is the epitome of a New York liberal, who though copious amounts of education has elevated herself to a position of rectitude, where it is her solemn duty to perfect all civilization, even to the point of telling others how to raise their children, if only for their own benefit. Lindsay has the best lines to say, the most exasperating asides to deliver, if only to remind everyone how enlightened she has become. Dressed in a flowing top with billowing pants and sauntering through a living room as pretentious as she is, she comes across as a benevolent force of nature, and Lindsay takes it to its full extent. There is one moment, however, where I wish she had used some dramatic pausing. It’s one of the first moments when her armor is beginning to crack and she’s beginning to let loose; her transition to those next lines to show her slow ascent into “commonness” with the other three characters needed more deliberation on her face and in her actions. Instead, she launched into the next lines as if she wallowed with the “little people” all the time. It was the only inauthentic moment in an otherwise exquisite performance.
You may wonder why I used the word “rushed” in my first paragraph. It is simple: the performance of this richly-textured play was rushed. What should have been a ninety minute performance took a paltry seventy minutes, and that’s a shame. It’s such a wonderful play filled with such talented actors; there was no need to push so quickly through the material leaving the audience no time to completely absorb the commentaries on civilization before launching into the next alliance-snapping section. For example, there was a wonderful dramatic pause delivered by Bender, who, noticing that Annette has become alive as a character once she was inebriated, he utters with perfect timing, “Well, puking certainly perked you up!” In the theatre, there’s a saying about pauses that took so long a Mack truck could have driven through them. Well the reverse is true in this production, for it could have used more judicious pausing. It’s too good of a play to rush through it so quickly.
Despite the rush, thank goodness for Reza’s words. Whether Ortego is raging against Veronica’s vicious asides by saying “You think too much,” or Satterly is slurring “I’ve never felt more normal,” they all become indictments of the animal instincts still built into our DNA. I never thought about it too much, but when Finley was talking into the phone to her distraught daughter about the loss of the hamster, she confides that the creature must be surviving and unintentionally summarized the gut feeling of the play. “She’s like us,” she explained calmly, “she’s omnivorous.” Well these four characters feasted on each other for an evening, and they definitely proved how cannibalistic they could be.
---Vincent P. Barras