Urban Savages Slug it out in God of Carnage; Cicerone Needs to Cheer Up

Are we barbarians under our civilized veneers? Or are we just big babies in grown-up clothes, ready to throw tantrums when we don't get our way?

French playwright Yazmina Reza's Tony-winning 2009 play God of Carnage (translated by Christopher Hampton) asks those and other questions about adults who should know better. She leaves it up to us to relate to her four characters directly or to simply laugh at their hilariously infantile meltdowns.

In Dallas Theater Center's frisky production, now onstage at Kalita Humphreys Theater, two couples sit down over coffee and pastries in an apartment in Brooklyn's Cobble Hill to settle a playground dispute involving their young sons. They're awkward at first, back-and-forthing over legal paperwork that states the details of how a stick wielded by one kid knocked two teeth out of the mouth of the other.

Polite conversation quickly gives way to prickly accusations. Hackles are raised. Voices too. And then something happens — something involving a violently physical reaction to either the stress of the situation or a bad piece of apple-and-pear clafoutis — and all hell breaks loose. Tantrums, tulips and cookies are tossed. Then the metaphorical knives come out.

Director Joel Ferrell has paced this dark, witty play to zip along like a knockabout farce (it clocks in at a swift 75 minutes sans intermission). But God of Carnage is more of a newfangled comedy of manners, making great, mean fun of certain types of modern urban snobs. (The very types who occupy the priciest seats at DTC, which adds another level of amusement for those of us firmly entrenched in the hoi polloi.)

The play's host couple, Michael and Veronica Novak, played with earthy sass by DTC resident company actors Hassan El-Amin and Christina Vela, are artsy haute-bourgeois liberals. He manages a "home goods" store; she's written a book about Darfur. Their elegantly furnished living room makes bold, if garish, statements via long, blood-red couches placed just so around a shiny coffee table stacked with pricey art books, sitting atop a zebra-striped rug. A scary tribal mask glares down from over the massive red fireplace, flanked by a pair of fertility gods. (Scenic design is by John Arnone.)

Visitors Alan and Annette Raleigh (Chris Hury and Sally Nystuen Vahle, both showing off previously well-disguised comedy skills) are a notch above the Novaks professionally and financially. Annette's in "wealth management." Alan's a cutthroat lawyer for Big Pharma, glued to his iPhone dealing with a crisis involving a client's possibly fatal drug.

"Madam, our son is a savage," Alan says flatly when Veronica suggests his boy apologize to hers in person. Annette voices her disgust at Michael's story about setting his children's pet hamster loose on a Brooklyn sidewalk because of his rodent phobia. Both wives are horrified when Michael approves of his son's involvement in a gang, which precipitated the schoolyard fight.

Loyalties constantly shift in this play: couple against couple, husbands versus wives, everybody at war with an expensive bottle of rum. There's one too-silly convenient coincidence (Michael's mom phones to say she's just been prescribed the drug Alan's concocting the cover-up for) and there's no resolution to any of it.

No matter. It's a smart evening of theater, expertly staged to deliver surprise visual whammies. Hury might remind you of Ed Helms (star of The Hangover). Vahle, Vela and El-Amin deliver Reza's punchlines with Golden Gloves accuracy.

And nobody escapes the carnage but the hamster.

Ochre House founder Matthew Posey has recreated the ambience of a quaint 1930s French bistro for his latest play, Cicerone, a drama about the love affairs of Tropic of Cancer writer Henry Miller. The atmosphere in this tiny storefront theater by Fair Park has gone Boho in extremis: cheap wine (free with the price of a $15 ticket), hard chairs, thick cigarette smoke (provided by hard-puffing actors) and next to no air conditioning. Many scenes in the nearly three-hour-long play include a stage direction that might read something like "then she removes her blouse." And as the temperature in this 50-seat steam bath rises, and the clock nears midnight in play-pretend Paris, you might be tempted to strip down to your scanties, too.

After a string of impressive new pieces — the designed-to-shock musical Mean about Charlie Manson, and Ex Voto, a stunning drama about the artist Frida Kahlo — Posey has grown indulgent with Cicerone, which he wrote, directed and stars in. He presents Henry Miller as a horny old stumblebum, falling drunkenly into bedroom and boîte with a string of pretty young femmes with pale, perky tits.

Estranged wife June (Anastasia Muñoz) drops by with her new lover, Danny (Josh Jordan). June takes a liking to Henry's erotic obsession, French diarist Anaïs Nin (Delilah Buitrón), and a bit of boob-baring Sapphic smooching ensues. Nymphet Nina (Miller Pyke) adores Henry but he treats her like a doll to be played with and then kicked under the bed. In loosely connected vignettes, we see Henry do his verbal dance of seduction with all of these women. The one who resists (at first) is Nin, whose blazing sexuality is tempered with intellectual sangfroid.

Miller makes friends with Salvador Dali (Kenneth L. Kemp) and counts on drinking buddies George Brassai (Mitchell Parrack) and a sailor nicknamed Duke (Trenton Stephenson) to cover his tab at the bar. It's always nighttime in Cicerone's Paris and everyone's always thirsty.

All of this could be hot, heady stuff. But Cicerone (the word means "tour guide") is unfocused and in need of slash-and-burn editing. The play drips with gloom, even in situations where characters should be having a good time. "Henry finds sadness in the happiest of places," says a pompous would-be poet named Baron Adolpho Groltsch (played by Kevin Grammer). That much Posey nails perfectly.

Between scenes of heavy drinking and noisy arguments, accompanied by four musicians plunking stringed instruments just offstage, Henry sits alone, depressed, delivering pedantic speeches about the history of storytelling ("writing is the first magical act by man," he says) and the powerful pull of "primitive urges." Posey, peering out from behind black-rimmed spectacles, underplays these sequences nicely. They just go on far too long.

The production looks good, though. Posey's shows, performed on a stage the size of a parking space, always use interesting design elements. In this one, costumes designed by Buitrón wrap the women in slinky 1930s dresses, sexy lace hosiery and face-framing cloche hats right for the period. The back wall of the stage has been painted by scenic artists Lucy Kirkman and Stephenson (the one who plays the sailor) with a pretty mural depicting the Café du Dôme. Henry's bed sits stage left next to trompe l'oeil windows flung open onto Paris streets.

If only there were more joie and less tristesse. In the lifeless second act, everyone talks and moves slower, like the play's engine is running out of gas. Early in the evening, nuzzling nubile girlfriend Nina, Henry muses mournfully that "youth is fleeting." Unfortunately, the play isn't. By the time Cicerone finally sputters to its end, you'll feel at least a decade older.

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Elaine Liner
Contact: Elaine Liner

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