Review: ‘God of Carnage’ at Keegan Theatre

Yasmina Reza’s Tony Award-winning God of Carnage is a cautionary tale for modern times. Written in French and translated into English by Christopher Hampton, Reza’s razor-sharp black comedy has resonated with audiences from Europe and the Middle East to Australia. Why the widespread appeal? Perhaps it’s a shared fear that beneath the civilized manners of the upper middle class lurk savage instincts we’d prefer not to acknowledge. With the Keegan Theatre’s new production, directed by Shirley Serotsky, we welcome God of Carnage back to the DC area.

Vishwas (Alan Raleigh), Susan Marie Rhea (Annette Raleigh), Lolita Marie (Veronica Novak) and DeJeanette Horne (Michael Novak) in Keegan Theatre's production of 'God of Carnage.' Photo by Cameron Whitman.
Vishwas (Alan Raleigh), Susan Marie Rhea (Annette Raleigh), Lolita Marie (Veronica Novak) and DeJeanette Horne (Michael Novak) in Keegan Theatre’s production of ‘God of Carnage.’ Photo by Cameron Whitman.

The American version is set in Brooklyn’s tony Cobble Hill. Before the play begins, two 11-year-olds come to blows on the local playground when one keeps the other from joining his gang. Benjamin attacks Henry with a stick, knocking out two teeth and damaging a facial nerve. Seeking a rational resolution, Henry’s parents invite Benjamin’s folks to their chic apartment for a chat. Initial pleasantries morph into to probing jousts over parenting styles. Before long, the stage becomes a battlefield of accusations, name-calling, stomping around and worse. Fault lines yawn into unbridgeable (yet often funny) chasms — not only between the two couples but between the husbands and wives as well. In the process, each of the characters reveals their worst self. With parents like that, it’s a wonder that Benjamin and Henry didn’t do more damage to each other.

Sustaining the tense, edgy humor throughout this one-act tornado requires top-rate actors and terrific ensemble playing. Individually the actors do fine work in their roles. Vishwas delivers a superb performance as Benjamin’s father Alan Raleigh, an amoral corporate lawyer who defends crooked pharmaceutical companies. His omnipresent cell phone, a source of both power and annoying distraction, could easily qualify as a fifth character in the play. Watch him prowl the stage barking commands to his unseen client as the others grapple with the playground fight. Alan’s wife Annette, played by the Keegan’s Artistic Director Susan Marie Rhea, combines icy hauteur and boiling frustration with the utter humiliation that befalls her (and startles us) early in the play. Her wobbly recovery is a marvel to watch.

Lolita Marie imbues the high-strung Veronica Novak with sizzling self-righteousness. Her caustic comments egg on the Raleighs and detonate a string of emotional firecrackers that explode throughout the play. And yet, we see flashes of Veronica’s humanity. On the phone, she soothes her young daughter over the loss of her hamster after her rodent-phobic husband Michael (DeJeanette Horne) tosses the beloved pet into Brooklyn’s teeming streets. Michael, perhaps the most compliant of the bunch, readily confesses that a Neanderthal lurks beneath his hail-fellow exterior.

Good as the individual performances are, the four actors still have a way to go before they gel into a totally riveting whole. Small pauses in what should be lightning-fast repartee dampen Reza’s dazzling script at times, leaving us to admire well-delivered lines that fall a bit short of their mark. Serotsky keeps them moving, however. Anger, fueled by alcohol and incessant incoming phone calls, propel the characters across the Novaks’ trendy living room. As their allegiances shift, the Novaks and the Raleighs constantly rearrange themselves in space. Their visual ballet is a fascinating part of the play’s rich emotional landscape. By the end, no relationship escapes intact.

The production is enhanced by Liz Gossens Eide’s sly, astute costuming. Annette’s severe navy ensemble enhances her snobby self-image. The addition of her expensive-looking oversized handbag is a stroke of brilliance. Watch it being tossed down like a gauntlet each time the Raleighs engage in yet another round of hostility. It is every bit as weapon-like as the sticks with which Benjamin attacks Henry. Veronica’s flowing pink hostess gown, Michael’s dashing red scarf, and Alan’s dull sweater and rumpled pants create a visual symphony as the characters move around Matthew J. Keenan’s handsome set. Cindy Landrum Jacobs’s props and set dressing design take on great importance in a milieu where destroying one another’s personal property becomes a shocking and mordantly funny part of the brawl.

Susan Marie Rhea (Annette Raleigh) and Lolita Marie (Veronica Novak) in Keegan Theatre's production of 'God of Carnage.' Photo by Cameron Whitman.
Susan Marie Rhea (Annette Raleigh) and Lolita Marie (Veronica Novak) in Keegan Theatre’s production of ‘God of Carnage.’ Photo by Cameron Whitman.

Described as a “comedy of manners, without manners” by the Queensland, Australia Theatre Company, Reza’s investigation of human behavior unearths truths we’d prefer to ignore. But once she shines a light on the chaos, we’re forced to consider how, given our complexities, we can set aside our egos and find common ground.

Running Time: 90 minutes, without an intermission.

God of Carnage plays through May 25, 2019, at the Keegan Theatre – 1742 Church Street NW, Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 265-3767 or go online.

Assistant Director, Cate Brewer; Stage Manager, Dan Deiter; Lighting Designer, Katie McCreary; Sound Designer, Niusha Nawab

[Related: Magic Time!: ‘God of Carnage’ at Keegan Theatre]