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The Merchant of Venice and God of Carnage 

Thursday, Apr 21 2011
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You call me misbeliever, cut-throat dog

And spit upon my Jewish gaberdine,

And all for use of that which is mine own.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY JOAN MARCUS - Civilization and Carnage: Harden, Davis, Daniels and Gandolfini
  • PHOTO BY JOAN MARCUS
  • Civilization and Carnage: Harden, Davis, Daniels and Gandolfini

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Well then, it now appears you need my help.

So argues Shylock (F. Murray Abraham) to the Christian Merchant of Venice, Antonio (Jonathan Epstein), in Shakespeare's comitragedy, upon the merchant's request for a loan. The touring production by New York's Theatre for a New Audience closes out a two-week run at Santa Monica's Broad Stage on Sunday.

Meanwhile, at the Ahmanson, Yasmina Reza's 2006 play God of Carnage — translated by Christopher Hampton and reuniting the 2009 Broadway cast (Jeff Daniels, Hope Davis, James Gandolfini and Marcia Gay Harden) — swirls around an argument between two children who never appear onstage. One, having been called a "snitch" by the other, answered by smashing his accuser in the face with a stick and knocking out two of his teeth. The production opened last week and continues through May 29.

"Snitch," "dog" — an insult is an insult, whether real or imagined, leading to revenges and counter-revenges that remain the greatest challenge to world peace. The insult lies not just in the words but in the attitudes underlying them — the haughty contempt, the dismissive sneer, the clubs and societies that exclude. These are the origins of blistering, fear-fueled hatred, at the heart of both plays. Each depicts the timeless battleground where respect and civility duel with honor and hubris — and where the fragile quality of mercy hangs in the balance.

The differences between the plays lie in the richness of the textures and of the dialogue. Merchant probes the essences of hostility by stacking up multiple causes — headed by the loss of Shylock's daughter (Melissa Miller) to a Christian suitor (Vince Nappo) — that lead to Shylock wishing to exact a pound of Christian flesh for no reason other than spite. Therein lies his only salvation in anti-Semitic Venice, and for that he is crucified on a cross of his own making.

Carnage, on the other hand, doesn't so much explore the origins of loathing between people as it assumes them as a given and then merely reveals them. There's little paradox, just various forms of decorum that get slowly, systematically yanked away.

In Merchant, the shock comes from the way the law undoes Shylock, the law he had so trusted. The shock in Carnage comes from an aristocratic woman projectile-vomiting in the midst of a dinner party — over the hostess's art books (a metaphor, at the very least). The difference between those symbols is the difference between a comitragedy and a satire. The former penetrates its characters' hypocrisies with irony and argumentation, the latter eviscerates them primarily through mockery.

God of Carnage unfolds in the home of the child-victim's parents, Veronica and Michael (Harden and Gandolfini) — depicted in Daryl A. Stone's set as a contemporary slab of domesticity. A cracked-stone-wall backdrop (all those fissures dividing what appears so solid), juxtaposed against art books stacked on the floor and tucked under coffee tables, signals a landing pad for liberal ideals. Yet that pad stands surrounded by a wash of red — the raging fire of aggression that's been licking at, if not engulfing, the translucent skin of civilization for millennia.

Veronica's husband, Michael, is a self-made wholesaler, a blue-collar fellow pressured by the play's circumstances to pretend he's far more tenderhearted than his temperament allows. After a few drinks, he'll reveal his true colors.

Veronica and Michael are visited by the parents of the aggressor-child, Alan and Annette (Daniels and Davis). Alan is a high-powered lawyer who, we discern from his incessant cellphone conversations, represents big pharma. Alan's emotionally precarious wife, Annette, is into "wealth management" — the wealth of her husband.

It all starts out so reasonably. Nobody wants to go legal over a kids' squabble. Alan and Annette admit their child is a monster, while Michael and Veronica appear ever so grateful and accommodating. In the tradition of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, however, that thin amiability becomes stretched by the consumption of too much alcohol, until it starts to tear.

Alliances shift to and fro. Michael gets called out for dumping his daughter's pet hamster in the street because the little creature made too much noise at night. Wife Veronica, standing up for the possibility of human dignity by calling for compassion on a global scale, is met with the toxic retort that her book-in-progress on Darfur won't make any difference to anything.

As the tensions among them rise, the initially agreed-upon premise that a problem child struck an innocent peer gets expanded to the theory that the abuser may have been justified because he'd been insulted. And therein lies the essence of what the ancient Greeks called agon, the struggle for honor — all starting from a kid with a stick and a grudge.

The rhythmic ebbs and flows of Matthew Warchus' direction of his perfect cast keep the play about as taut as can be imagined. But the comic-dramatic tension of who can gore whom is like watching a bullfight. It's sadism mixed with technique, and the bloody outcome isn't really in question. I found myself riveted for an hour or so, until the dramatic formula became formulaic.

In Merchant, F. Murray Abraham's Shylock contains an almost rarefied dignity that melts into exalted agony. It's a deft and beautiful performance that's scantily supported by the rest of the ensemble, and by Darko Tresnjak's Euro-chic staging. John Lee Beatty's stark set places a trinity of MacBook computers on pedestals. Sound designer Jane Shaw has them blipping and beeping the play into the 21st century.

Abraham's Shylock may be more tender than Al Pacino's recent Broadway incarnation, directed by Daniel Sullivan, but this production pales by comparison. The ethnic slurs are here like barbs, punched out as though to declaim, "You see, this is a play about bigotry."

Sullivan's staging muted all of that, so that the play floated down a stream of decorum — which is precisely what made the trial of Antonio, when Venice's bigotry manifested itself full-force, so harrowing to watch. Moreover, in Sullivan's version, there was never a hitch in the clarity of the story. Here the vagaries of the settings, combined with some monochromatic supporting performances, lead to a tumble of words and passions that takes a while to congeal.

Kate MacCluggage turns Portia into a regal beauty who can transmit a freight load of subtext in a single glance. This disintegrates when she doubles as a local, revered judge — and though that's a crucial scene, at least it's short. Her waiting woman (Christen Simon Marabate) also has an effervescence that helps lift this production's heavy load.

Still, as in God of Carnage, the cautionary tale emerges: Beware of a child with a stick and a grudge.

GOD OF CARNAGE | By Yasmina Reza | Presented by Center Theatre Group at the Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., dwntwn. | Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m., Sat., 2 & 8 p.m., Sun., 1 & 6:30 p.m. | Through May 29 | (213) 628-2772

THE MERCHANT OF VENICE | By William Shakespeare | Directed by Darko Tresnjak | Presented by Theatre for a New Audience at the Broad Stage, 1310 11th St., Santa Monica | Wed. & Sat.-Sun., 2 p.m., Thurs.-Sat., 7:30 p.m. | Through April 24 | (310) 434-3414

Reach the writer at smorris@laweekly.com

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