Though set more than a century apart, God of Carnage and In the Next Room — smart comedies debuting across town this week, from two of today’s most talented female playwrights — share a similarity of purpose: each coolly, wittily dismantles the hypocrisies and misperceptions that prop up or interfere with our lives.
Over at Elite Theatre, Parisian Yasmina Reza brings a surgeon’s detachment to her razor-sharp, Americanized tale of parental comeuppance in God of Carnage. Liberals Veronica (Kimberly Demmary) and Michael (Jack Impellizzeri) pride themselves on their broad-mindedness when they invite Annette (Kathleen Bosworth) and Alan (Scott Blanchard), a wealth manager and lawyer, to their Brooklyn home to resolve a playground brawl that has left their son with two broken incisors. But as the cracks start to show under the forced civility, even the adults can’t play nice in the sandbox.
Director Tom Eubanks’ clever set design captures a tasteful minimalist interior accented with Fisher-Price hues, while a textured back wall with repurposed swings suggests the playground in question. The solid cast mostly overcomes the early pacing issues of the slow-burn script, until the inevitable eruptions leave more than one character moaning for a drink, but the tension and humor could have been screwed even tighter by adding sound effects for Alan’s perpetually buzzing cell.
Impellizzeri is especially effective as the marshmallow-hearted Michael turned hamster killer; Demmary manages to arouse both sympathy and glee as her smug convictions are systematically lacerated. As the so-called phonies, Bosworth and Blanchard deliver a one-two punch for candor — they may be boors, but at least they’re not fakes. In Elite’s continuing turn toward more contemporary fare, this one-act represents another exciting addition.
Santa Paula Theater Center’s In the Next Room is subtitled The Vibrator Play, but a sweeter, gentler treatment of the subject could scarcely exist. Playwright Sarah Ruhl started life as a poet, and she pours her lyrical sensibilities into Catherine Givings (Leslie Miranda), a healthy, vivacious woman who becomes increasingly curious about her husband’s (Eric Stein) practice treating female hysteria by harnessing nascent electrical power to incite “paroxysms.” When Catherine can’t produce enough milk to feed her newborn, the Givings enlist Elizabeth (Brittney Wheeler), a black wet nurse who recently lost her own child.
Much of Ruhl’s humor arises from teasing characters for whom sexuality remains as novel, and confounding, as Mr. Edison’s new invention. James Castle Stevens’ ensemble makes the most of it. Orgasms abound onstage — Tosca Minotto deserves a special prize as Mrs. Daldry — but the encounters are tastefully managed. As the aptly named Dr. Givings, Stein brings excellent comic instincts to the ignorant man of science. Miranda glows as his wife, but still appears to be feeling out Catherine’s peculiar blend of sociability and self-doubt in the first act. Minotto does fine work as the blossoming Mrs. Daldry, with Michelle Wagner a quiet but steady presence as the assistant Annie, and Shea Taylor refined and alluring as a visiting artist. Wheeler is magnificent, offering the evening’s most honest moment in a monologue about her dead son.
The only setback here is the staging, which often traps characters behind furniture far upstage on Mike Carnahan’s well-designed set. Perhaps that’s a deliberate choice to evoke late 19th-century strictures (along with Lori Lee Gordon’s gorgeous costumes and period undergarments), but one rather doubts it.
Instead of a narrative about gratification, we get a warm-hearted play about characters ripening in self-knowledge and remaking themselves for love. In a world increasingly automated and electrified, they seek love and intimacy, forces as mysterious as candlelight.
God of Carnage, through May 19, Elite Theatre Company, 2731 S. Victoria Ave., Oxnard, 483-5118 or www.elitetheater.org. In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play), through May 26, Santa Paula Theater Center, 125 S. Seventh St., Santa Paula, 525-4645 or www.santapaulatheatercenter.org.