What lies beneath
Theater ex-pats make energetic return to local stage
As I waited in the crowded lobby of the Blue Room before the sold-out opening-night performance of God of Carnage last Thursday (Jan. 17), I remarked to one of the theater’s old-timers that the whole thing felt pretty exciting. To which he responded, “These are our heavy hitters.”
He was, of course, referring to the four former local theater standouts who were making a temporary return to the Chico stage: local girl and Chico State grad Amanda Detmer, who has gone on to Los Angeles and become a successful film and television actress (with credits that include The Majestic, Saving Silverman, What About Brian?, among others); longtime Chico theater mainstay Michael Gannon, who now lives and acts in New York; another former local-theater stud, Johnny Lancaster, who also lives in New York, doing commercial voice-over work for the likes of the Discovery Channel, Pepsi, Long John Silvers and Nickelodeon; and, director Coy Middlebrook, who helped start the old Chico City Lights Opera and has been traveling the world directing plays, and recently finished filming For Spacious Sky, which was partially shot in Chico (and stars Detmer).
The buzz surrounding the show (four of the six performances were sold out by opening night) was largely due the return of these favorite sons and daughter, and to take the metaphor to its predictable conclusion, the “heavy hitters” knocked it out of the park.
The entire one-act is set in a well-appointed living room where two married couples have gathered to discuss a playground incident between their two sons in which one boy, “armed” with a stick, has whacked the other in the face, knocking out a couple of his teeth. That loaded word, “armed,” inserted by the host couple into a draft of a letter outlining the event (and then retracted after protest by the other couple), is the first clue that this won’t be an entirely cordial meeting. There are issues hiding under the surface, and in short order each of the four adults brings the primal law of the playground to bear on this civilized upper-middle-class living room.
The hosts, Veronica and Michael (played by Detmer and Lancaster), are the parents of the kid missing the teeth. She is an art enthusiast and writer and he is a wholesaler of household goods. The other kid’s parents, Alan and Annette (played by Gannon and visiting New York actress Daniela Mastropietro) appear, at first, to be the stiffer of the two couples. She is in wealth management and he is a big-time lawyer who keeps interrupting the meeting by taking calls from a client.
Each character starts off wearing his or her particular mask, but once the carnage is unleashed, they all become similarly wild children, slinging insults and unloading pent- up burdens at every turn. It’s not just the incident between the two kids fueling the conflict. The bile that comes up (sometimes literally) is from their individual wells of emotion, and each takes it out on the other characters in turn—couple vs. couple, spouse vs. spouse, and so on.
The acting was very impressive. The seams of the characters were imperceptible. We weren’t seeing the acting, or timing, or blocking; we were witnessing four emotionally honest characters having it out in front of us. The jokes landed, the dialogue felt authentic, and the reactions seemed sincere because the players were all living out the story in front of us.
My favorite was probably Gannon, whose slimy lawyer appearance quickly gave way to a no-bullshit, perversely lovable (and hilarious) instigator to the proceedings. He didn’t want to be there, but he sure was enjoying the crazy ride.
Somewhat buried in the pre-show hype was the fact that this dark comedy, written by French playwright Yasmina Reza, was one of the most celebrated plays of the last decade. It won an Olivier in Britain, a Tony in America, and was adapted into a film version (Carnage) by Roman Polanski. That such a well-written show was put in the hands of these actors made for a truly special night of theater. Middlebrook and his cast more than delivered on their promise.
At press time, the remaining shows had sold out as well. In response, the Blue Room has scheduled one added performance, a late-night show Friday, Jan. 25, at 10 p.m. Get your tickets before they’re gone.