This year was surprisingly noncatastrophic for Seattle theater and for The Stranger's theater section. Besides the mystery of Brian Colburn, the managing director of Intiman Theatre who resigned suddenly and mysteriously just before the theater announced massive financial problems, it's been a quiet year.
Except for one thing: Two theater companies, one large (Seattle Repertory Theatre) and one tiny (a no-name fringe company), produced plays by French playwright Yasmina Reza—God of Carnage and Art, respectively. This may seem like a small thing, but bear with me: We must regret Yasmina Reza, the queen of mediocrity, and vow not to indulge her in the coming year.
Mediocrity sounds inoffensive enough—most theater productions live in the vast mediocre middle—but somehow Reza's plays ascend to the condition of offensive mediocrity. Her characters are the most boring upper-middle-class people imaginable having the most boring conversations imaginable (about the meaning of art in Art, about whether people are fundamentally selfish in God of Carnage). If you heard people talking this way at a party, you'd quietly edge away and try to find the door. So why do people pay tens of dollars to sit through her plays? Why do theater directors large and small keep producing her?
What, exactly, do people see in her?
If Reza were just another not-quite-good-enough playwright toiling in obscurity, it wouldn't matter. But she's supremely famous: Art, about three vacuous, middle-class men who have a banal fight about a painting, won a passel of awards, including a Tony, and some fool at the Guardian pronounced it "probably the most sustained attack on modernism yet seen on the British stage." (Art may be the most sustained attack on the intelligence and attention span of theater audiences, but is certainly not a sustained attack on anything else.)
And not only did Reza's 2006 play God of Carnage—about two vacuous, middle-class couples hashing over the consequences of one boy hitting another with a stick on a playground—win a Tony Award for best play, but nearly every single person involved in the New York production was nominated for and/or won a Tony Award.
I can only imagine that people like her plays in the same way that people like to stare at themselves in a mirror: Vacuous, middle-class theater subscribers like to watch plays about vacuous, middle-class people. (Or, in the case of fringe companies who produce her work, the vacuous, middle-class people they aspire to be.)
I wish I could tear into Reza with a little more juice, but her plays have so little material to analyze. They are so uninteresting, so empty, that they defy criticism. As Larry Ballard, who performed in Art at the Seattle Rep in 2001, put it: "The better the writing, the Reza's plays need thoroughbreds."
I beg you, Seattle theaters: Stop producing Reza's plays. They're piffles, nothings, puffs of air. You have so many superior playwrights in your own city who are struggling through the swamp of obscurity: Scot Augustson, Paul Mullin, Kelleen Conway Blanchard. You owe it to yourselves, and to your audiences, to reach a little.
Yasmina Reza is low-hanging fruit. And she's so very rotten.