Three years ago, “God of Carnage” was the biggest play on Broadway. The cast was killer: James Gandolfini, Marcia Gay Harden, Jeff Daniels and Hope Davis. French dramatist Yasmina Reza’s dark farce about brawling parents won best play honors at London’s Olivier and New York’s Tony awards.
A few months ago, Roman Polanski’s film adaptation, “Carnage,” bombed. Couldn’t be saved by another killer cast: Christoph Waltz, Jodie Foster, John C. Reilly and Kate Winslet. Critics trashed it.
A.O. Scott wrote in the New York Times, “. . . this play consists of a superficially provocative idea slapped onto an almost-probable situation and whipped into a froth of hyper-articulate nonsense.” The Washington Post’s Ann Hornaday called it “leaden,” “flat-footed,” “self-satisfied” and “shallow.” Oh, and “a toxic four-hander.”
The picture only grossed $2.5 million, according to Box Office Mojo. At its peak, the Broadway production made that every three weeks.
Since the movie didn’t make a dent, audiences can arrive fresh for the local stage premiere of “God of Carnage” that begins Tuesday at Signature Theatre. But “Carnage” is a low point in a dispiriting pattern, with prestigious new plays too often ending up as disappointing films. These include pedigreed projects you may hear about — “Proof,” “Closer,” “Rabbit Hole” — but probably aren’t catching at the cineplex.
A play? That’s what we went to the movies to avoid.
Screen adaptations of acclaimed new plays — which for purposes of this discussion do not include musicals, works of Shakespeare or spectacles (“War Horse”) — aren’t always terrible on screen. For instance, “Doubt” (nun suspects priest of abuse), as directed by playwright and “Moonstruck” screenwriter John Patrick Shanley, retained much of its absorbing moral pull.
“Closer,” the Patrick Marber drama about a steamy romantic quadrangle, fared decently as a 2004 Mike Nichols film with Julia Roberts, Natalie Portman, Jude Law and Clive Owen. Its gross was in the mid-$30 million range, about the same as for “Doubt.” That’s also about the same as for Tyler Perry’s gauzy update of “For Colored Girls” (to take an older play) and for George Clooney’s “Ides of March” adaptation of Beau Willimon’s “Farragut North” (to take a significantly less acclaimed script).
Still, recent adaptations tend to stink or tank.
Pulitzer winners that aim for the big screen — as opposed to getting the glossy cable TV treatment (“Angels in America,” “Wit,” “Dinner With Friends”) — tend to struggle creatively or financially. “Proof,” David Auburn’s drama about a woman who may have inherited her father’s genius and madness, reunited Gwyneth Paltrow with her “Shakespeare in Love” director John Madden. It grossed $7.5 million. David Lindsay-Abaire’s “Rabbit Hole,” a portrait of a grieving couple after their young son’s death, was good for just $2.2 million.
It went harder still for Rebecca Gilman’s much-talked about “Spinning Into Butter,” which became a 2008 movie with Sarah Jessica Parker. The picture had a very limited release and grossed $8,000 — four figures — to go with condescending reviews (”less a movie than an essay,” wrote Stephen Holden in the Times).
An extremely slight and random survey of local theater people found few champions of any recent straight play on screen. (The 1992 movie of David Mamet’s 1984 “Glengarry Glen Ross” kept coming up.)
“I kind of figure, what’s the point?” said Lise Bruneau, who directed a sharp production of Shanley’s “Savage in Limbo” at MetroStage last fall.
Aaron Posner, a busy local director who has adapted writers as different as Mark Twain and Chaim Potok for the stage and once directed “Closer,” asks, “Did they even make a movie of ‘Proof’?”
Joe Calarco, who is directing “God of Carnage” at Signature, said he recently told his Signature cast that it was “the most fun I’d had in the theater in a long time.” One look at the movie trailer for “Carnage,” though, “and I suddenly didn’t want to see it,” he said.
What goes wrong? What’s the key to getting it right?
David Ives, author of the recent stage successes “Venus in Fur” and “New Jerusalem,” invoked Thornton Wilder to suggest a difference between the metaphor-friendly stage and literal-minded film. For Wilder, it was fine that Emily died in “Our Town” as a play but survived on screen. “It’s in the tension between those two kinds of character-drawing,” Ives said in an e-mail, “that a film of a play will succeed or fail.”
Actor Rick Foucheux, currently in Arena Stage’s “Ah, Wilderness!” and cast in “Glengarry” at Round House next season, said cinematography and atmosphere are critical. Posner said a lot hinges on galvanizing performances in top-notch roles. He cites “Doubt”: Shanley’s work was headlined by Cherry Jones on stage and Meryl Streep on screen, and all four of the movie’s principal performers got Oscar nods.
The essence of great roles frequently shifts in the transition, though. “Proof” was a surprisingly funny crowd-pleaser in the theater, but on screen it turned into an introspective star vehicle for Paltrow, whose face was scrutinized in nearly unrelenting close-up. Lindsay-Abaire has said he liked how “Rabbit Hole” changed on film even as it sacrificed some of the laughs on stage. But the attractively prickly quality of the lead character, the dead boy’s tart-tongued mother, was damped as Nicole Kidman whispered 30 of her lines.
If there were foolproof methods for making the leap or avoiding a faulty landing stage-to-screen manuals would be bestsellers. And it’s no lock, of course, that “God of Carnage” will be as entertaining in Signature’s 112-seat Ark theater as it has been elsewhere.
Calarco and members of his cast have not seen the movie, and they don’t plan to until after their show. But Calarco notes the play’s strengths: playwright Reza’s heightened language and sense of situation. Being in the room with the bickering figures, yet with distance and permission to laugh.
“The comedy is the degree to which these people fall,” Calarco said. “Which I would think on screen might not be funny.”
The current theater ecosystem mitigates against the sturdy old pipeline enjoyed by Tennessee Williams and Neil Simon, whose plays routinely made names on Broadway before getting the cinematic treatment. Still, a few splashy projects are in the pipeline: Streep and Roberts possibly in Pulitzer winner “August: Osage County,” Roberts maybe in “The Normal Heart.”
Playwrights don’t need movies to validate their plays, of course, and dramatists typically consider it a point of pride to write specifically for the theater. At the same time, the theater can be self-referential and borderline culturally irrelevant. That’s according to playwright advocate Todd London in his 2010 industry survey, “Outrageous Fortune.” A bit of wider market penetration now and then couldn’t be all bad. It just rarely happens in a way that reflects a bit of glory back on the dramatic stage.
So: “God of Carnage” is being produced in 23 regional theaters this season, tying it with John Logan’s “Red” — which just set box office records at Arena — for the most frequently produced non-Shakespearean script. You can also currently see the failed movie on pay-per-view. For all of Hollywood’s skill and sizzle, odds are you’ll enjoy Reza’s play better if you catch it live.
8: Best Picture nominees adapted from acclaimed plays in the 1980s.
2: Best Picture nominees adapted from acclaimed plays since the 1980s (”Frost/Nixon” and “War Horse”).
“The Shape of Things,” By Neil LaBute
Pedigree: 2001 sellout London hit and New York transfer starring Paul Rudd, Rachel Weisz and Gretchen Mol; widely produced nationally and internationally. Filmed by LaBute with original stars.
2003 movie box office: $700,000
“The History Boys,” By Alan Bennett
Pedigree: 2004 hit at London’s National Theatre, 2006 hit on Broadway; winner of Olivier and Tony awards for best play. Filmed by stage director Nicholas Hytner with original stars.
2006 movie box office: $2.7 million
“Edmond,” By David Mamet
Pedigree: 1982 Mamet drama; 1996 off-Broadway production wins praise; 2003 production at London’s National Theatre, starring Kenneth Branagh, is a sellout hit (”thrilling,” “rare power,” “exciting occasion”). Film starred William H. Macy and Julia Stiles; Macy “gives the nerviest screen performance of his career” (New York Times).
2006 movie box office: $131,000
By Yasmina Reza. Directed by Joe Calarco. Tuesday through June 24 at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington. Call 703-573-7328 or visit signature-theatre.org.