As Yasmina Reza’s God of Carnage opens, two couples meet for a civilized discussion. Their sons have just had a violent playground encounter that cost one of the boys a couple teeth, and the two sets of parents have decided to work out an agreement that arranges for the boys work out their differences in a civil way. They all think that’s for the best. After all, as one of the parents asks, “How many parents, when standing up for their children, become infantile themselves?”
Before 90 minutes are up, we’ll see just how infantile these cultured adults can be. One of them is a lawyer, and another is an author, but deep down they’re brutes when they get pushed to the limit. And once their insincere air of cooperation fades away, the battles between them begin.
Tiny irritations turn into big ones. Alliances keep shifting: one moment the argument is couple versus couple, the next it’s the men versus the women, and pretty soon it’s one person versus the other three, in multiple combinations. These people can’t even depend on their spouses for support; toward the end, one of the wives tells her husband “every word that comes out of your mouth is destroying me.”
Did I mention this is a comedy? It is. And it’s a very funny one, too. The cynicism of Reza’s play (in a sharp translation by Christopher Hampton) can be a little too much to take at times, and there’s a calculation to its outrageousness that is a bit too blatant. But it’s fun to see these characters bare their souls and get their comeuppance.
Director Annika Bennett’s production is too slow-moving at the beginning; there are lots of long pauses, and characters sit calmly and hold hands rather than keeping things moving. There are also some odd staging choices; one of the wives keeps leaning forward on a couch, blocking her husband from the audience’s view. And Jeffrey Van Velsor’s set, with its overstuffed, old-fashioned leather chairs and couches, seems more like the house of a couple in their sixties than the home of a 21st century Brooklyn family with school-age children.
But eventually God of Carnage turns into a farce, and that’s when the show really takes off. Bennett makes the most of her cast’s physical and verbal dexterity.
Billy Cohen is Alan, a condescending, snide attorney whose ever-ringing cell phone is just one sign that he’d rather be anywhere else. Maddie Meyers is his wife Annette, who gets sick (literally) over Alan’s attitude. Olivia Nice gives the show’s most satisfying performance as Veronica, who spouts platitudes about “the art of co-existence” even though she’s the most hyper and merciless of them all. Jake McCready is her husband Michael, a blue collar guy with high class aspirations. They’re all very good, although McCready comes off as too mild and bookish for the self-proclaimed “Neanderthal” Michael.
Keating Helfrich’s costumes are excellent, with subtle touches – like Veronica’s blue jeans and Alan’s handsome shoes – revealing a lot about the characters.
God of Carnage is a sharp and illuminating comedy that shows just how close the line between civilization and savagery really is. And the crueler it gets, the funnier it gets.
Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.
God of Carnage plays through July 10, 2016 at Princeton Summer Theater, performing at Hamilton Murray Theater on the campus of Princeton University in Princeton, NJ. For tickets, call (732) 997-0205, or purchase them online.