‘God of Carnage’ at Signature Theatre by Ashunda Norris

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I absolutely loathe the fact that people must pretend to like one another for the sake of appearances and are deemed socially inept if they don’t go along with the status quo. Most people only unravel after the company has left their home. French playwright, Yasmina Reza’s God of Carnage explores exactly what happens when a group of people let all, and I do mean all, of their guards down in the presence of each other.

God of Carnage, translated by Christopher Hampton and brilliantly directed by Joe Calarco, is the story of two upper-class New York couples who meet to discuss an altercation between their sons on the playground. What should be a simple exchange among four adults quickly turns into nearly a brawl between people who start to behave like adolescents.

The Raleighs and the Novaks in a heated war of words in "God of Carnage". From left to right: Vanessa Lock, Paul Morella, Naomi Jacobson, and Andy Brownstein. Photo by Scott Suchman.

The play premiered in Switzerland in 2006, and in 2008, the show moved to London, maintaining the Paris setting. When the show opened on Broadway, the setting was changed to Brooklyn. This small modification in setting made all of the difference for the play as it opened to an American audience with James Gandolfini, Hope Davis, Marcia Gay Harden and Jeff Davis in the leading roles. It won a slew of Tony Awards. The production has also been made into a film, Carnage, directed by Roman Polanski.

As the play opens, Veronica and Michael Novak (a stellar Naomi Jacobson and outstanding Andy Brownstein) and Annette and Alan Raleigh (an amazing Vanessa Lock and impressive Paul Morella) appear to be quite an uptight bunch. Stoic, bored, uncomfortable and tense, these four hate each other’s guts ten minutes after they meet each other. The humor is in watching how they attempt to be polite and mild-mannered even after their tempers have flared well beyond the tipping point. These people would rather be anywhere else than in the presence of each other.

The most firm and unyielding of the bunch is Mrs. Novak. She constantly refers to the Raleigh’s’ son, Benjamin as a “public menace,” “savage” and even “executioner.” Her comments about the child even include the words “disfigured” and “attacked.” Needless to say, the Raleighs do not take kindly to Mrs. Novak’s words and nearly lose their tact in dealing with her. All we know of the children, Henry Novak and Benjamin Raleigh, is what their parents tell us. Benjamin hit Henry with a stick which results in two broken teeth. Apparently, Henry didn’t want to divulge the name of the person who hit him and because he does, Allan calls him a snitch. The two boys don’t appear to be friends, only mild acquaintances.

The underlying aspect of the play is not the incident between the two children, but their parents’ reaction to it and their general unhappiness with their everyday lives. Michael admits that he despises marriage and child rearing because they each “consume our lives and destroy them,” and Annette is ready to agree with him until her husband’s cell phone rings yet again. Alan’s constant ringing cell phone is not what infuriates Annette. It is his constant need to answer it and disconnect from present issues that cause her concern. Her husband is more connected to his career than he is his home life. Sound familiar?

Paul Morella (as Alan Raleigh) showing some much needed concern for his wife, Annette Raleigh (Vanessa Lock). Photo by Scott Suchman.

Reza’s material not only forces us to confront our beliefs about simplistic social constructs but also our deepest insecurities about marriage and its ability to wear down even the most capable, tenacious person. The solid cast portrays both these facets in the most intense and compelling ways. Take for instance, Lock’s Annette. When we first see her sitting on the Novak’s small ottoman, she is already unraveling at the core. Her hands twitch nervously, she keeps patting her hair and her feet cross and uncross during most of the conversation. By the time Veronica has insulted her son for the fiftieth time; Annette is a voice of truth and peels back the layers everyone is trying desperately to conceal. Morella’s Allan is simply ready to escape; either by shoveling Veronica’s clafoutis down his throat or hiding away in cell phone conversations about work.

Brownstein’s Michael has an anecdote to share nearly every few minutes, which sometimes have nothing to do with the conversation at hand. Every character avoids the most important question: Why are we even bothering? It’s pure fun to watch this unfold on stage.

The production team’s work is flawless as the lighting design by Colin K. Bills is a bout of perfection. The set is under dim lights for only two moments in the play; the beginning and the very end. Everything in between puts the characters under blazing lights that expose every idiosyncrasy, nuance, facial expression, tear drops, tightened fists and looks of exasperation that cross their faces. Everything is exposed and very few things are hidden under these lights. So while the Novaks and the Raleighs are working so exceptionally hard to keep their true feelings under wraps, the lights reveal them all. This is due in part to Bills’ remarkable talent and the magnificent performances from this quartet of actors.

James Kronzer’s set design is remakable. The chairs, chaises, and sofa are off-white, beige even. A glass top buffet sits in the left corner and a wall-high bookshelf is in the other. Art work adorns the center of the wall and art books fall across the chestnut coffee table. This apartment appears to very yuppie, very upper crust, very high class New York. Its furniture and décor is not overstated or glaring out at the audience. It is just enough to make one with lesser means a tad bit envious of the Novak’s seemingly substantial wealth.

What I love about Signature Theatre is how intimate it feels no matter what body of work is being performed at the time. This modest but radiant theatre is so cozy that I always feel as though I’m not simply an audience member, but a neighbor watching from across the hallway, a servant listening behind the kitchen walls, or a child waiting for the parents to cease the arguments. This makes for quite an enjoyable theatre experience.

Make time to catch this run of God of Carnage. You won’t regret it.

Andy Brownstein (Michael Novak). Photo by Scott Suchman.

Running time: 75 minutes, with no intermission

God of Carnage plays through June 24, 2012 at Signature Theatre – 4200 Campbell Avenue, in Arlington, Virginia. For tickets, call (703) 573-7328, or purchase them online.

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Ashunda Norris
Ashunda Norris is a storyteller, poet and English teacher. A graduate of Paine College and Howard University, Ashunda has a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in English. While teaching middle school English, she realized her true passion was creative and journalistic writing. Writing reviews for DCMetroTheaterArts keeps Ashunda from pulling out her hair due to the high stress level of her day job. She has written a few short screenplays and is currently working on a full-length script, a novel and a collection of poems. When she is not teaching seventh graders the wonders of manners and a smile, Ashunda can be found on a stage reciting poetry, in a movie theater digging into a purse full of snacks or with a book in her face.