New York: The Norman Conquests, Table Manners, and God of Carnage

There are two plays up right now that have a look at the collapse of civility and standards in stressful domestic settings, a revival of The Norman Conquests trilogy, imported from a successful run in London, and God of Carnage, the newest play from Yasmina Reza, translated from the French for its Broadway debut.

Interestingly, they’re both directed by the same person, Matthew Warchus, which gives him a better than average chance of winning that Tony, since he’s two fifths of the five man field rather than just one. Good plan, Matt. Get the math on your side. That’s what I always say.

The Norman Conquests, Table Manners</strong, by Alan Ayckbourn at Circle in the Square. The trilogy part is tricky. Each play takes place in a different room of the house over the course of the same day with the same cast but can be seen independently. Table Manners is the one in the dining room.

In brief, a weekend with three sibling couples at their invalid mother’s country home. Norman hits on everyone.

Even briefer: Go.

This is the British half of my domestic disaster double bill and it’s the one to see. The British start from a position of repression, so devolution into their lesser selves still keeps them entertaining, interesting to watch, and above that Jerry Springer bar. You will not feel the need to drink heavily or never get married/immediately seek a divorce when you leave the theater.

Overall, I agree with everything the Times reviewer said, most prominently that this is not a brilliant trilogy of plays that can survive an American cast or a poor staging well, so this is the time to see it. It’s a great production with an outstanding British cast and you’ll like it even if you don’t much like theater.

The weak link, unfortunately, is the titular Norman (Stephen Mangan, inexplicably nominated for a Tony last week), but he’s more than made up for by Ben Miles and Paul Ritter who make brilliant business of being, respectively, wincingly awkward and hale fellow well met. Amanda Root (remember Persuasion?) is excellent as the worried, pushy wife trying to keep things on track and off the inevitable, dysfunctional rails.

God of Carnage by Yasmina Reza at the Bernard Jacobs Theater

Full disclosure: I saw this at a Wednesday matinee, which is often a recipe for disaster because the audience is packed with can’t-sit-still, I’ve-been-dragged-here, don’t-you-love-gum? classes of teenagers to supplement the usual weekend matinee crowd of out-for-the-day, in-from-the-suburbs, lunching-with-friends, don’t-really-“get”-the-play ladies. (To whom, for the record, I am – when not sitting next to them and their comments – grateful for supporting live theater with their full-price tickets.)

Even allowing for the matinee distraction factor, I didn’t think much of the play. It’s been a successful and well-received production, but I chalk that up to the presence of screen stars (James Gandolfini, Hope Davis, Marcia Gay Harden and Jeff Daniels) and Reza’s talk-show script, both of which make it highly accessible. Sadly, they don’t make it meaningful or even really very entertaining, unless, like my matinee crowd, a.) you have never before thought about the potential vacuousness of middle-class marriage and this play is therefore a revelation, or b.) you think profanity is hilarious.

Imagine Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? without the cleverness, the pathos or the dialogue. That’s God of Carnage. There’s nothing particularly tragic or even interesting about pretentious couples being mean to each other about nothing much. And by “mean”, I mean yelling and throwing tulips and saying nasty things about cell phones, which just isn’t that mean. Watching it was like overhearing a particularly vicious squabble in a restaurant: it’s uncomfortable, you’re embarrassed for the participants, but there doesn’t seem to be a point beyond a Seinfeld-ian, “What is the deal with people? Geesh!” No new ground, no hidden meaning, not even a buried skeleton.

I knew I’d like Hope Davis, and she did the best with the script of any of them, but I was disappointed with Gandolfini who I know has a range beyond Tony Soprano but has the diction of a drunk second grader, and Harden who seems to be having too much fun throwing herself around to be believably distraught. Maybe it all comes back to the script, but the production felt like everyone was waiting for the editor to fix all the sloppiness before the final print.

All of that said, there’s a silver lining to new plays of inferior quality being produced on Broadway: it makes success that much more realistic for the rest of us. Hooray mediocrity!

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