Thursday, December 10, 2009

Yasmina Reza's Guilty Pleasure?

Whenever it feels as if everyone is telling me that I have to see a show, I tend to start looking for reasons to run the other way. Several years ago, while on a business trip to the East Coast, I found myself with an evening to myself in Manhattan; and, forgetting my rule of thumb, I decided to plunk down my American Express card for a ticket to see Art. I was not as annoyed as I have been on other such follow-the-crowd occasions; but just about everything I witnessed fell flat on me. Leaving the theater, I took a look at my watch and realized that I had just sat through the duration of three Seinfeld episodes; and that seemed to capture the experience in a nutshell: a lot of rapid (but not necessarily quick-witted) banter around a situation that had gotten a bit too long in the tooth to count for an authentic situation any more.

Now I do not know very much about Yasmina Reza beyond what I have read on her Wikipedia page. I know she is French, the child of an Iranian father and a Hungarian mother, both Jewish. I have no idea whether or not she watches television and, if she does, what she enjoys watching. I also have no idea if her parents left her with that Jewish sense of humor that has enjoyed so much popularity in the United States. However, I suspect that the hypothesis that one instance of that Jewish sense of humor, Seinfeld, was popular enough that it got distribution on French television is a viable one; so there is some possibility that the program had at least a subconscious influence on Reza's writing. Whether or not Christopher Hampton was similarly influenced when he translated her text into English is more problematic. Hampton has always struck me as being too damned productive to spend much time in front of a television; but, at the very least, he may be like many of us who fall back on it in a hotel room when we are too tired to do anything else. So there is some chance that the "Seinfeld voice" in the English version of Art could have come more from his exposure to that voice through his own television viewing than from Reza's source text.

Still, the question of where Reza gets her ideas remains; and the crowd is now "Oscar Mike" to sold-out performances of God of Carnage on Broadway, which has now moved on to its second cast. Like many, I was curious about the original cast (James Gandolfini, Jeff Daniels, Marcia Gay Harden, and Hope Davis), all of whom had impressed me with their work in a variety of settings. (I even remember seeing Daniels in off-Broadway theater around the time that Hollywood was discovering him.) However, when The New York Times gives the second cast as much attention as it gave the first, I have to start wondering whether the fuss about God of Carnage is as much a superficial fad as the fuss had been over Art.

This time around the banter seems to have been replaced with verbal pugilism (reinforced by the headline for the second cast review); and the situation has a bit more substance. Nevertheless, it is still a premise that is showing its age and may once again have been inspired by American television. The kicker is that, this time around, the source seems to be Curb Your Enthusiasm, which Larry David cooked up after having so much success in working with Jerry Seinfeld on the Seinfeld series. Since Curb Your Enthusiasm is an HBO production and HBO now gets international distribution, I am even more confident that one can see it in Paris than I was about Seinfeld. Furthermore, if Hampton has already mastered that "Seinfeld voice," then translation of a "next generation Seinfeld" script (which, by the way, again has the duration of three episodes) was probably a walk in the park (or at least a stroll to Zabar's).

Now to be fair, I have nothing against either Reza or Hampton getting a kick out of Larry David. I personally do not share that pleasure, but that is just a matter of personal taste. This kind of influence is probably not that different from Karlheinz Stockhausen's experiences with jazz. However, just as the influence of jazz on Stockhausen may have provoked his own anxiety, leading him to try to bury it in his hyper-theoretical essays about composition, both Reza and Hampton may labor under a Euro-centric aesthetic that would not tolerate influences from American television. On the other hand the success of both Art and God of Carnage on Broadway may be attributed to the desire of today's audiences to have a "television experience" in a somewhat more elite setting. If I personally find that a rather inadequate excuse for entertainment, that is, as I said above, a matter of personal taste. However, if Larry David comes up with a Curb Your Enthusiasm episode about his material being appropriated in a Broadway stage play, I would probably take the time to watch that episode!

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