As the curtain opens on God of Carnage, Veronica Novak (Karen Shotts) is walking on eggshells, trying to have an adult conversation with the parents of the child who hit her son with a stick. Veronica and her husband Michael (Chuck Dluhy) have invited Alan (Jack B. Stein) and Annette Raleigh (Allison Block), a couple who they have never previously met, into their home so the parents can deal with the issue between their 11 year old boys, Benjamin and Henry. Both couples are striving for civility, coffee and pastries are served, and all are trying not to point blame or become defensive. Over the course of the play, their attempts become less successful.
Watching these fabulous actors hold in what they are feeling and thinking for so long is abundantly clear to the audience and the attempts and occasional failures to stay civil are hilarious. Looks between Veronica and Michael are subtle and revealing. Annette and Alan send looks back and forth to each other less and I got the sense of long term subdued resentment. The issues both couples are dealing with should not be so funny, but playwright Yasmina Reza reminds the audience poignantly and repeatedly, how close we adults can still be to schoolyard bullies. They find reasons and excuses for eventually saying hurtful things, they gang up on their own spouses, as well as the other family, and once the insults fly, underlying tensions and prejudices are revealed.
There is cruelty in each of these characters, and an odd satisfaction for the audience when each takes out their own frustrations on one of the others. Reza reminded me how often we humans are willing to hurt others, dismiss their feelings, and laugh at their misfortune. The main premise and potential for conflict was clear in the first five minutes, but the tension builds masterfully. It is well-written by French playwright Yasmina Reza, and translated by Christopher Hampton, directed with clarity by Christopher Dykton, and performed with terrific abandon by these four excellent actors.
There is cruelty in each of these characters, and an odd satisfaction for the audience when each takes out their own frustrations on one of the others. Reza reminded me how often we humans are willing to hurt others, dismiss their feelings, and laugh at their misfortune. The main premise and potential for conflict was clear in the first five minutes, but the tension builds masterfully.
Veronica is the most verbal of the four, pushing to talk this all out, and hoping to get an apology for her child. Shotts plays Veronica heroically, and her descent into a rum-filled stupor is tragic. Annette becomes sick of the bickering, of the skirting of issues, of the lack of support from her husband. When she is literally sick on Veronica’s art books, she receives less attention than the books. I am supposing the effect of her violent illness was aided by special effects guru Art Snow. The moment is shockingly real, and painful, messy, and horribly funny. When Annette (Block) regroups to fight again, the audience is transported. Michael’s response when he is blamed for ill-treating his daughter’s hamster is to lash out. The audience finds some of his reaction is from embarrassment at his own fears and we are reminded how frequently fear is behind cruelty.
The change in Michael’s character played by Dluhy is varied and very believable. Stein plays Alan as a lawyer who is at this meeting to humor his wife, when he is more focused on the legal troubles of his biggest client. His cellphone frequently interrupts the conversation, and he ignores the others in his presence to deal with the work call. It is rude and self-centered and when Alan calls his own son a savage, the audience doesn’t like him. But boy, do I like Stein, who portrays the role wholeheartedly.
Costumes, designed by Susan Boyd, help to convey the characters. Alan’s 3-piece business suit suggests an uptight lawyer who can’t leave work at the office. His wife, Annette, looked coiffed and elegant in dress and heels that would work for the First Lady in Netflix’ House of Cards. They are both overdressed when compared to their hosts Michael and Veronica, but theirs are the costumes that get messed up. Veronica is more comfortably dressed in slacks and loose fitting top, but tasteful and stylish. Her husband, Michael is the most casual, reflecting the generic blue collar everyman he tries to portray as owner of a company that supplies home hardware. His clothing choices seemed odd to me at first, but reflect a man slumming a little to “butch up.”
When I speak of a good set, I often refer to it as a playground for the actors. It gives them a place to experiment with the characters and bring them to life. This set fulfilled that idea in an odd way.The single unit set held seating, a coffee table with a stack of art books, side table with bar setup; all reflecting a very realistic living room. The surrounding three walls, though, reflected a different style-It was an artistic design for confining the space, each wall centered with a panel suggesting to me, the sculptural work of Louise Nevelson.
The three panels hung on open wooden frames. It was arresting, and in my mind very beautiful, but felt to me to be in a different style than the realism reflected everywhere else, making me question the intention. If anything, I found the wall units to be evocative of the jungle gyms found on a playground. This connects the world of the adults to the scene of the violence between their children. The adult behavior reflects aspects of bullying and verbal assault very similar to that seen from kids. I am not sure I captured the intent of Set Designer Grant Kevin Lane, but his design worked for me.
The lighting design by Jeffrey Scott Auerbach focused attention on the interaction of the four characters, while providing an interesting look for the set. I was unaware of cue changes during the scenes, but in a show like this, that is as it should be.
The Sound design by Keith Bell also was entirely appropriate. Choices for effects, timing, and volume were consistent with the needs of the show. On one of the numerous occasions when Alan’s cell phone interrupts the conversation, Alan answered the phone prior to it ringing audibly.
God of Carnage flies by in 85 minutes, with no intermission. It packs a wallop in so short a time, and fits in a great deal of raucous comedy. I left the theater highly entertained despite the recognition of the paper-thin veil of civility that protects us from abuse.
Before this show flies by on the calendar, make a point of coming to The Little Theatre of Alexandria to see God of Carnage. The quality of this production warrants large audiences, so do not risk it selling out and missing it. Get your tickets early.
Running Time: 85 minutes, with no intermission.