Some theater groups might shy away from a play that was about to be adapted into a big Hollywood film.
Not Briarcliff’s Hudson Stage, which opens Yasmina Reza’s “God of Carnage” this weekend, about a month before Roman Polanski’s film adaptation — its title shortened to “Carnage” — comes to multiplexes starring Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, John C. Reilly and Christoph Waltz.
Rather than pretend the film doesn’t exist, Hudson Stage producers Olivia Sklar and Dan Foster are embracing it, behind the slogan: “See the play first, then see the movie — and discuss.”
The discussion won’t likely wait till the movie comes out. “God of Carnage,” which runs weekends through Nov. 19 in Briarcliff Manor, is thought-provoking stuff.
The best-play Tony-winner in 2009 starts out as polite and well-mannered as can be: Two couples gather to discuss, in the most civil of tones, a scuffle that occurred between their boys. Before long, though, the gloves come off and it’s the parents who are battling: husband against wife, wives against the husbands. Think of June and Ward Cleaver and Mike and Carol Brady going mano a mano.
The cast for this Westchester production is decidedly local: Cortlandt Manor’s Denise Bessette, New Rochelle’s Paul Carlin and Montrose’s Doug Ballard are joined by NYC’s Carol Halstead. The production is directed by Croton’s Dan Foster, who stepped in when the original director, Giovanna Sardelli, left the show due to an illness in the family.
Carlin and Bessette are Michael and Veronica, who welcome Alan (Ballard) and Annette (Halstead) into their home.
Says director Foster: “As with any couple, you can plan the evening up until the moment the door opens. And then, because they’ve never been in this situation before, you can maybe predict how it’s going to go or where it’s going to go, but nine times out of ten it’s not going to go there. Then you’re flying without a net.”
This is one of those nine times.
“The minute the true stuff hits the fan, their individual beliefs start bubbling up,” Carlin says. “Michael has the idea of this as boys being boys, so let’s not make a big deal out of it. But he has to assuage his wife by making a big enough deal out of it so that she’ll believe he thinks it’s a big deal.”
The tipping point, Foster says, is when each couple “breaks the cardinal rule of becoming parents to someone else’s child, projecting their parenting wants and skills onto the other couple.”
“Any parent’s back would go up at that,” adds Bessette.
Ballard likens the situation to headline-grabbing incidents of parental sports rage where “they have to regulate the parents more than the kids because the parents get so involved and yell at each other.”
Once these couples’ backs are up, all bets are off. Off-handed, unguarded comments drive an ever-shifting lineup of allegiances.
“Alliances change all through it,” Halstead says. “Sometimes it’s the women against the men. Sometimes it’s couple against couple. And there are times when it’s three of us ganging up on the fourth. It’s like a chess game.”
Partnerships turn with a glance in Reza’s rapid-fire dialogue.
“You don’t have the time, in this, to think too much,” says Bessette, who founded Hudson Stage with Foster and Sklar in 1999. Performances are at the Woodward Hall Theater on the Briarcliff Manor campus of Pace University.
Carlin agrees that things happen fast.
“All of a sudden, the person you were whacking before becomes, ‘Hey, you know what? If we get together we can whack them,’” he says. “Not that we’re strategizing, but all of a sudden the circumstances arise and you find yourself in the next alliance.”
Ballard says he’s comfortable playing the constantly-cellphoning lawyer Alan.
“I play a much better bad guy,” he says.
Annette is the focus of the show’s most memorable scene — a laugh-out-loud, wince-inducing moment that will certainly drive a lot of the can’t-wait-till-the-movie discussion.
The moment is so explosive and memorable, but the actors can’t tip their hand until it’s upon them.
“The biggest trick of this play is going to be staying absolutely present in every moment of it and not anticipating what we as actors know is coming,” Bessette says. “If we anticipate anything, we’ll be dead.”
Halstead nods her head.
“We can’t play the end of the play at the beginning of the play,” she says. “We know we’re all coming in with our separate agendas underneath, but if we start the play there, we’ve got nowhere to go.”
Westchester audiences have somewhere to go: First to Hudson Stage.
Then to the multiplex.
“God of Carnage” Woodward Hall Theatre, Pace University, 235 Elm Road, Briarcliff Manor. Preview 8 p.m., Nov. 4. Opens Nov. 5 for a run through Nov. 19. 8 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays; 3 p.m., Nov. 6, 13 and 19. Q&A follows Nov. 13 performance. Tickets: $35 general admission; $30 seniors and students. Tickets phone: 877-238-5596. Hudson Stage phone: 914-271-2811. Go to the Hudson Stage website. http://www.hudsonstage.com.
Photo by Joe Larese/The Journal News: From left, actors Carol Halstead of NYC, Doug Ballard of Montrose, Denise Bessette of Cortlandt Manor and Paul Carlin of New Rochelle speak about acting in “God of Carnage” during a rehearsal at Studio 353 in Manhattan.