On stage, playing it short, as in ‘God of Carnage,’ is a virtue

By ROBERT TRUSSELL
The Kansas City Star
Let’s call it in-and-out theater.

As the Unicorn Theatre and Kansas City Actors Theatre prepare to open their co-production of “God of Carnage,” we see that Yasmina Reza’s caustic comedy is part of an undeniable trend. Look around and you might conclude that we’re in the golden age of one-act plays.

“God of Carnage” is expected to run about 80 minutes or less without an intermission. John Logan’s “Red,” which opened the Unicorn’s season, ran 90 minutes straight through.

From left, Melinda McCrary, Brian Paulette, Cinnamon Schultz and John Rensenhouse (Unicorn/KCAT)

Over at the Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre, Bob Paisley’s production of Keith Huff’s “A Steady Rain” clocks in at almost 90 uninterrupted minutes. The same is true of “The Year of Magical Thinking,” the one-actress play by Joan Didion that opened last week at the Living Room.

And the American Heartland Theatre’s production of “Nobody Lonesome for Me,” Lanie Robertson’s meditation on Hank Williams’ last night on Earth, would have run 90 minutes had the Heartland not inserted an intermission (with the playwright’s approval).

There’s nothing new about one-act plays. Reza’s first big international hit, “Art,” was performed without an intermission. And Edward Albee’s “The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?” enjoyed a long Broadway run.

But they seem to have proliferated in recent years, and some of them have attracted wide audiences. “Red” and “God of Carnage” were Broadway hits, and Roman Polanski’s film adaptation of Reza’s play, titled simply “Carnage,” is expected to be released later this year.

“Usually I have one show a season that has no intermission, sometimes two,” said Cynthia Levin, the Unicorn’s producing artistic director. “This season four of our shows have no intermission. What I worry about is that plays are becoming shorter, because they are learning to tell a story in a shorter amount of time, because people’s attention spans are shorter.”

“God of Carnage” has been described as a play whose effectiveness is a direct result of its compact running time. In it, two couples meet to discuss a playground incident involving their children, and what begins as civilized conversation deteriorates as primitive emotions are laid bare. The Unicorn cast includes John Rensenhouse, Melinda McCrary, Brian Paulette and Cinnamon Schultz.

“I do think it’s the right length,” said Mark Robbins, who is directing “God of Carnage.” “I would have hated to see her try to pad it out to a longer play. … I guess what Reza likes to do is kind of rip the lid off the bourgeoisie and show us the kind of primitive, childish, feral people they are underneath. It happens in real time in front of your eyes. It’s an event, and then it’s over.”

There are exceptions, of course. Kansas City Repertory Theatre’s recent production of “August: Osage County” presented a play that ran counter to contemporary playwriting trends. Tracy Letts wrote a three-act play with two intermissions that requires an audience to sit for more than three hours. It was sprawling, verbose, textured — sort of a melodrama wearing its Sunday best.

But it could be, in the age of texting and tweeting, that concision in drama is inevitable. It’s tough to pick up a play by one of the great American 20th-century dramatists — Arthur Miller or Eugene O’Neill, for example — without thinking they could have told their stories with fewer words.

“I think it’s cool, dramatically, to hold people’s attention and not let them go and the beginning, middle and end happen in front of you without a breather,” Levin said. “You shouldn’t really be given a chance to sit and evaluate what’s happened until the play has completely done its job 90 minutes later.”

Read more theater news at kansascity.com.

© 2011 Kansas City Star and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.

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