WE SOMETIMES forget the thin veneer that sometimes separates our private lives from our public ones. When we alone know our flaws and foibles, we can sometimes manage to hide them for a lifetime. But as anyone who’s been in a committed relationship knows, the fastest way to unearth those things is to fall in love . . . and then wait a little while, till the butterflies dissipate.
Lest we forget this truth, faithful Broadway is here to remind us. Two plays currently running on Broadway, Yasmina Reza’s God of Carnage and Neil LaBute’s reasons to be pretty, feature the disintegration of the domestication veneer as their central theme. Both casts consist of two couples in traditionally civilized places engaging in traditionally civilized pursuits—playing baseball, earning a paycheck, talking on the phone, visiting neighbors. Both can be bitingly, cringe-inducingly inappropriate. But they conclude very differently.
God of Carnage unfolds in one act, set in a living room that nobody seems to be able to leave. It plays like a slightly less devastating rewrite of Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit, particularly the famous line, “Hell is other people.”
Written by French playwright Yasmina Reza, it has been produced in German, French, and English, first in London and now on Broadway. It’s been massaged by translator Christopher Hampton to appeal to New York audiences, with an all-star cast (Jeff Daniels, James Gandolfini, Hope Davis, and Marcia Gay Harden). The couples now live in Cobble Hill, a neighborhood in Brooklyn settled with well-to-do families who have many theories about child-rearing, where principles of cosmopolitanism are settled facts of civilized life. The children play in the best parks, and coffee tables at home are covered in glossy art books.
Alan is a misogynistic, emotionally absent lawyer-dad with a cell phone pasted to his ear, married to Annette, a high-strung nervous wreck who works in wealth management. Their young son, Benjamin, struck his pal Henry with a stick in the playground, breaking two of Henry’s teeth, and now Alan and Annette are in Henry’s parents’ living room, making amends.
Henry’s parents, Michael and Veronica, are none too happy about their son’s pending dental work, but the couples discuss the matter calmly over beverages. The cracks in their relationships begin slowly to appear as Alan’s openly devil-may-care attitude begins to annoy everyone – most of all Annette, who has clearly been left to handle everything in their shared life by herself. Michael and Veronica’s marriage looks far more congenial, but they’re hardly immune. And when husband and wife begin to bicker, the whole facade falls down.
There’s some impressive gastronomic pyrotechnics and a lot of screaming and good scotch to go around, along with a recurring story about an abandoned hamster, and in the end, as the living room is strewn with the petals of white tulips and full-grown adults sit slumped in misery, it’s obvious that nobody is as moral or sophisticated as they thought they were.
Where God of Carnage succeeds in its dialogue, which is rapid, punchy, and so hysterical that you can overlook the fact that when characters deliver their more profound lines, they’re never very profound. (Or perhaps that’s the point.)
Set in a working-class suburb, reasons to be pretty has none of God of Carnage’s art-book-and-fine-liquor gloss to bust through, which may be why it so successfully charges in with a rip-roaring fight. Steph tears into her bewildered boyfriend Greg, who, she has learned from her friend Carly, referred to her as having a “normal” face to a friend over beers. Steph is destroyed, though Greg can’t really figure out why, and she leaves after throwing some things at him.
But Greg’s troubles are not over: he finds out that his friend and co-worker, Kent, married to Carly, is cheating on her with the hot new girl in the warehouse. As he tries to mend his relationship with Steph, do the right thing by Kent, and protect Carly, Greg is forced into growing up a little – and as it turns out, that might not be such a bad thing.
The play is ostensibly about our culture’s obsession with physical beauty. In reality, though, it digs into a much deeper truth: a relationship requires two people investing in it, learning from one another, continually seeking to grow. Stagnancy is the death knell.
LaBute’s characters have little of the sophistication and worldly-wise air of Reza’s. Greg and Kent work the night shift, unloading shipments at a warehouse. Steph cuts hair at the mall, and Carly is a security guard. But it’s Greg and Steph and Carly, who are younger and less sure of themselves than the Brooklynites, that take their falling-apart experiences and turn them into an impetus for responsibility.
Which may just mean that while relationships show us our faults in ugly relief, they can also help us grow up.
This article also appeared on The Curator, an online culture magazine published in New York by the International Arts Movement.
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