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What a Difference a Cast Makes: “God of Carnage” in La Mirada

Jamison Jones, Amy Sloan, Maura Vincent and Hugo Armstrong in McCoy Rigby Entertainment production of "God of Carnage  [photo: Michael Lamont]

Jamison Jones, Amy Sloan, Maura Vincent and Hugo Armstrong in McCoy Rigby Entertainment production of “God of Carnage [photo: Michael Lamont]

One of the terrific things about live theater is its combination of a potentially unchanging script and the amazingly different interpretations which can be brought to that script. So much depends on which performers are engaged with it, and what the director of a particular production envisions as the show’s purpose. Thus, in the case of Yasmina Reza’s “God of Carnage,” one can end up with two very different aftertastes, depending on which version of the same script you have seen.

I will admit that, upon seeing the original Broadway cast reunite to do this piece at the Ahmanson in 2011, I was unimpressed. The vitriol was so vicious, the edge so grim that – though it may have accurately underscored the essentially animalian quality lying just beneath modern white middle class “civilized behavior” – it was not, as advertised, funny. On the other hand, in the new McCoy Rigby Entertainment production at the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, it is very humorous indeed. It’s all in how it is played. So, now I get it.

The tale begins as a result of a confrontation in a local public park, where one little boy has attacked another. Now the parents of the boy who was the apparent attacker have come to the home of the parents of the other boy to discuss what to do from this point forward. What begins as an awkward but well-meaning discussion quickly devolves into the dysfunctionalities which power each couple’s lives. A send-up of successful middle class elitism and innate one-upsmanship, it ends with all parties looking ridiculous. This is as it should be. Getting there is occasionally startling, a bit gross, and painfully laugh-filled.

Hugo Armstrong creates in Michael, the man in whose living room the action takes place, a classic, old-fashioned “guy.” With a hardware business and a love of sports, he becomes the stereotypical sympathetic, meat-and-potatoes man trying to find his place in the forced pacifism and faux intellectualism of suburban society. As his wife, Maura Vincent gives Veronica a mild OCD to enhance her ostensible fascination with art and social issues. This is a woman who controls. The friction of contrasting energies hums mildly even as the play begins.

In Alan, the preoccupied and disinterested father of the aggressive boy, Jamison Jones drips with disdain for pacifism, even ethical responsibility, thwarting the civilized intents of everyone else in the room. With body language alone, he often rules this piece as either the active irritant or the overtly detached distraction. Amy Sloan handles the job of the businesslike Annette, mortified at her son’s behavior and her husband’s disengagement. In Sloan’s hands, she becomes the pot ready to boil over, and when she does – both literally and figuratively – it comes as much as a product of an internal wrestle as from external forces, making the results much more humorous.

Indeed, in the hands of director Michael Arabian, all is played with just enough underlying camp to keep the ugliness of their confrontations from simply being disquieting and grim. Likewise, his choreography keeps the players moving from corner to corner, engaging and disengaging as the conversation unravels.

One again, John Iacovelli has created a set which neatly places the characters in time and place. Christopher Hamilton’s splendid translation of Reza’s French script seats the piece elegantly in America – something which is a statement of universality in itself.

“God of Carnage” really is as much fun as it was originally painted. That it took a cast other than the one who had played it for a great length of time says much about interpretation and vision, and perhaps something about what happens when performers encounter a part anew – before it becomes old hat. In any case, it’s a lesson in what makes theater such a living, breathing animal.

What: “God of Carnage” When: Through February16, 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday Where: La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, 14900 La Mirada Blvd in La Mirada How Much: $20 – $60 Info: (562) 944-9801 or (714) 994-6310 or

The Brutal Truth: “Art” Scrutinizes Friendship

Bradley Whitford, Roger Bart and Michael O'Keefe argue over "Art" at the Pasadena Playhouse

Fast on the heels of Yasmina Reza’s controversial recent hit “God of Carnage,” which tore up the stage at the Ahmanson, an equally controversial but somehow more humane work of hers receives another L.A. run, this time at The Pasadena Playhouse. The award-winning “Art” uses the fight three disparate friends have over a painting to access the base elements of human connection. It may seem to be a discussion of taste and trend. Instead its central exploration becomes what defines a friendship.

Essentially, Serge (Michael O’Keefe), a reasonably well-heeled dermatologist, has bought a modern painting. His friend Marc (Bradley Whitford), an engineer, cannot see what makes it artful. Their childhood pal Yvan (Roger Bart), a ne’er do well about to wed, is called in to find the humor in this discussion and ends up yanked first to one side and then another. In the process, truths are told, stands are made, and at least one punch is thrown. Why do they all stay in the room to discuss this?

O’Keefe gives Serge, often with just a raised eyebrow, the innate pomposity of someone staunchly defending a passion: dismissive of those without the same spark. Whitford’s Marc exhibits the commitment to reason over emotion one expects of someone rooted in the provable, all with a kind of gee-whiz confidence which cannot help but make Serge frost up. Bart gives Yvan the sloppy honesty neither of the others can afford, vibrating with the air of a chastised puppy.

The balance of these three performances works. None becomes the star, and the ensemble allows one to listen to the nuances within the friends’ argument. Director David Lee manages to keep the energy constant, choreographing what could occasionally become a static discussion into a consistently lively, uninterrupted tale. This is aided by Tom Buderwitz’s deceptively simple set.

In short, “Art” does what Reza had become known for: strip the social veneer from supposedly civilized society to show its underlying animosity. Still, in this version there is a genuine friendship, however strained, to balance the ferocity, and considerable humor. Indeed, the central argument which sparks all the rest may be one you will continue with your companions long after the play is done. What is art anyway? Become the beholder, and see.

What: “Art” When: Through February 19, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m and 7 p.m. Sundays Where: The Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave. in Pasadena How Much: $29 – $59 Info: (626) 356-7529 or

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