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A couple of eleven year old boys get into a fight on the playground; one hits the other so hard with a stick that he busts out some teeth.  The victim’s parents invite the assailant’s parents over to discuss the altercation and find some path to reconciliation and understanding for their sons.

What could go wrong?

L. to R.: Susan Angelo, Ted Koch, Dierdre Madigan. Photo courtesy Pittsburgh Public Theatre

Alot, as Yasmina Reza’s excruciatingly funny dissection of twenty-first century bourgeois pieties demonstrates.  What starts out as a civilized discussion among four putatively enlightened upper-middle class urbanites quickly devolves into a series of quasi-operatic scenes of finger-pointing, rationalization, self-aggrandizement, and recrimination, much to the delight of the audience whose demographic the play’s characters mirror.  (In fact–and I like to get these confessions out of the way at the outset–for this viewer, the given circumstances of this play were all too familiar and close.  Only a month ago I tried to have a similar conversation with the mother of a couple of boys who had been bullying my children, and (to my surprise) was met with a similar negative/aggressive response. But…I digress.)

The main conflict here is not just between the two sets of parents.  The real subject of the play is betrayal–that is, of the myriad ways we are capable of not only betraying others but also ourselves, sometimes in spite of our own best interests, but more often out of some deep seated, semi-conscious urge towards revenge or recrimination.  Early in the play, for example, the victim’s mother Veronica (Deirdre Madigan), taking advantage of a moment in which the two couples are swapping stories of parenting mistakes, reveals that her husband Michael (Ted Koch) had put the family’s pet hamster out on the street to meet its doom the previous evening.   It’s a betrayal that will dog Michael for the rest of the evening, forcing him not only to reveal a shameful thuggishness in himself but also prodding him later to take revenge on his wife by ridiculing the hypocrisy of her left-wing idealism.  The self-betrayals are even more devastatingly observed and take the play to soaring comic heights–in a masterfully conceived scene, the assailant’s mother, Annette (Susan Angelo), vomits (a form of physical self-betrayal) all over Veronica’s prized collection of art books; the panicked concern Veronica and Michael display in their frantic attempts to clean the puke off of “the Kokoschka” does not, of course, extend to their gastrically distressed guest.  Veronica–whose sympathy for the plight of distant others is proved by her current project, a book about the crisis in Darfur–apologizes profusely for the hullabaloo over “the Kokoschka,” but the damage is done:  she’s revealed the fraudulent cracks in her holier-than-thou liberal humanism.

Reza is a French playwright whose work has won prizes in many languages, including German and English.  Her breakthrough hit, Art, was set in a similarly privileged milieu and explored the comic self-congratulatory and contradictory arguments provoked among a set of friends by the outlandish price paid by one for a pure white painting.  The analysis of the contorted logic and self-servingness of the rich and intelligent is Reza’s forté:  she is a keen student of the class of people who are wealthy enough to have the luxury of being their own worst enemy.  Christopher Hampton’s translation brilliantly brings the play into an English setting, and it’s a testament to the strength of the premise (and perhaps to the globalized nature of the upper middle class) that a French play, translated by a British playwright, seems so utterly American.

Ted Pappas’s direction is brisk and precise, with a good eye for using body language and stage picture to convey the social and power dynamics at play in this little world.  Anne Mundell’s set captures both the aspirational nature of Veronica and Michael’s ambitions by way of an ostentatiously understated decor, and the way the play shows the raw beneath the cooked:  a large “tear” in the back wall reveals a rough log cabin wall behind the smooth modern surface, just as the character’s civilized niceties, when stripped away, reveal a John Wayne/ frontier mentality at play.  Steve Tolin was once again responsible for some admirable special effects; Pappas’s costumes hit the mark in signalling the character’s status and social position; and the light and sound designs (by Phil Monat and Zach Moore) worked to shift the mood in subtle and appropriate ways.

L. to R. Ted Koch, David Whalen. Photo courtesy Pittsburgh Public Theatre

This is a play that lives or dies by its actors, and the cast at the Public is terrific.  David Whalen, playing Alan, the assailant’s father, gives us a ruthless Machiavellian who shifts between alliances with Annette, Michael, and Veronica with delightful precision.  Koch is utterly believable as the working-class-wholesaler-made-good who doesn’t quite fit in with the modernist furniture Veronica has carefully arranged in the living room of their  Brooklyn apartment.  His rages against marriage and rodents take on operatic proportions.  Both Angelo and Madigan take their characters on big, bravura journeys.  Angelo’s Annette goes from nervous, uptight conciliator at the beginning of the play to an outspoken, serenely drunk rebel at the end.  Madigan’s Veronica begins as a hesitant and somewhat mincing do-gooder; by play’s end she is loudly proclaiming how much she doesn’t “give a flying fuck.”   All four have nailed the nuances and subtleties of their characters, and their timing, collectively, is excellent.

I don’t know how to end this overly long review, which may be appropriate, since Reza didn’t seem to know how to end her play either.  Is the hamster dead?  Who knows?  Go see this play–you’ll laugh so hard you won’t care.