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Friday, April 27 News

Yasmina Reza hit opens in Westport

Two upper-middle class couples meet over drinks to deal with a schoolyard fight between their children and soon find themselves battling each other.

That's the premise of Yasmina Reza's play "God of Carnage," which was a hit in the playwright's home country of France and then moved on to equal success in London's West End and on Broadway, where it won the Tony for best play in 2009.

A new production of the comedy-drama is opening at Music Theatre of Connecticut in Westport on Friday, Jan. 31.

"It has a universality that moves across generations and cultures," director Mark Torres said during an interview last week. "Like Shakespeare and Beckett, (Reza) has tapped into something so elemental that we all can relate to it."

Reza scored another trans-Atlantic smash a decade earlier with "Art," which examined the crumbling friendship of three men after one of them buys a piece of abstract art that ticks off his friends.

"In both cases, the translation is very strong," Torres added of the work that British playwright Christopher Hampton did to adapt the two Reza scripts for London and New York City theatergoers.

Torres saw and enjoyed the Broadway production of "God of Carnage" with Marcia Gay Harden and James Gandolfini, but has become even more impressed by the piece as he has worked on it at MTC.

"She does so much in such a short period," the director said of the 90-minute, intermissionless play. "Her economy and focus is remarkable. I mentioned Beckett before, but I would bring in Edward Albee and Harold Pinter, too, in terms of compact writing."

Marty Bongfeldt is playing the wife who becomes the most physically distraught character in the play -- she gets a shock moment that earns one of the biggest laughs.

The actress said the visceral, intimate quality of the play should be heightened at the very snug MTC, where no one in the audience is more than three rows from the stage.

"There are pluses and minuses in being so close, but I think in some way it frees you to be very realistic and naturalistic. It's film-like acting because the audience is right there," Bongfeldt said during a rehearsal break.

The performer likes the fact that the audience's loyalties keep shifting during the play, as we get to know the four people better.

The characters go through a similar process -- the couples start off presenting unified fronts that quickly crack. There are points in the action when the husbands seem to be ganging up against the wives and then the wife in one couple sees the wisdom of the husband in the other couple.

"Its very basic human behavior," Bongfeldt said.Torres and Bongfeldt hope the play will stir some very spirited discussions after the show.

"I remember when I saw it on Broadway, rehashing and talking about it afterward," Torres said. "I think it is meant to get people debating the meaning of relationships."

Casting is extra-crucial with a tight, intense play like "God of Carnage," the director said.

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"There's got to be a kind of chemistry between all four actors, and I am thrilled with the cast I have," Torres said. "It's very exciting to have a sense of an ensemble and real trust. That helps me develop what I call the vectors of the play -- who is against who at each point in the story."

jmeyers@ctpost.com; Twitter: @joesview

Music Theatre of Connecticut, 246 Post Road East, Westport. Friday, Jan. 31-Sunday, Feb. 16. $45-$25. 203-454-3883, www,musictheatreofct.com