God of Carnage feels like a Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf for the 21st century. The characters are better dressed, finer housed, super toned, and a whole lot funnier. But playwright Yasmina Reza argues that the same god still reigns, and that under the surface we are still primitives. Scratch us and we don’t bleed, we begin to hurl things at each other. The new production at Signature Theatre makes us yelp in recognition through our laughter.
Yes, there’s a lot that’s very familiar about this play. There’s the couple that goes for each other’s jugular by the end of the evening. There’s the slightly more virile and younger man, at least when the woman-not-his-wife downs a few rums and, sitting next to him, looks at him a little cross-eyed. There’s even a blonde who gets a little tummy upset when emotions start to roil.
Reza has a great ear for dialogue and a wicked sense of character. Alan (Paul Morella) is an exec with the big contract and the need to be on his cell phone 24/7. Annette (Vanessa Lock) is his willowy blonde wife, who looks so serene as she strides across the stage as if she has just emerged from a Red Door spa treatment. They’re both “visiting” the home of Michael (Andy Brownstein) and Veronica (Naomi Jacobson) to resolve a conflict that happened between their eleven-year old sons that left Michael and Veronica’s boy with a fat lip and two missing teeth. The four were willing (sort of) to come together and work things out as a way to model for their respective sons how adults deal with conflict resolution.
That’s where the carnage begins. Nobody gets left unstripped under Reza’s eagle eyes. The women tattle against the men, loathing the guys’ violent language and descent to crudity. The men gang up against the women, complaining that their wives are phony and cold. Everyone switches alliances moment to moment, and the bludgeoning goes on.
Paul Morella as Alan proves himself to be a corporate bastard, and we all want to cheer when his cell phone gets dunked. (Lock, who did the dunking, and Jacobson perform the equivalent of an end zone dance in one of the most delicious and raucous pleasures of the evening.) Brownstein flings off his sweater and gets Archie Bunkerish, reveling that his character’s treatment of his children’s hamster is tantamount to being on the enemy list of PETA. But even –or perhaps especially — at their worst, Reza makes us feel both their pain and their loneliness. Just as the characters switch allegiance and alliances throughout the evening, so do we in the audience.
Reza’s play falls somewhere between biting satire and sitcom. If her work Art, produced last year by Signature, stayed a little more elevated in its conception and language, this play falls closer to pure sitcom. But it’s million dollar stuff, and no one should worry in this culture war over whether the playwright is “high art” or just commercially popular. “Poor Reza” is laughing all the way to the bank.
In the hands of four of Washington’s top actors and directed deftly by Joe Calarco, who has earned his place in Signature’s stable of regulars, God of Carnage is a wheezingly funny play. Calarco makes great use of the stage space and paces the work unerringly.
It’s all in the details. The actors flesh out the slender conceit of this play with wonderful touches. The twitchy eyes and hands of Jacobson as Ronnie, the concerned liberal activist, reveals she’s always second guessing herself, now taking a stand, now apologizing and pulling back, smiling with ever more earnest good will. So it’s delicious when she goes nuclear on her husband and uses her tiny lithe body as a human missile. Brownstein sits slumped and good humored for a time then leaps up onto the furniture like King Kong. Lock’s sleek beauty is a mask that shatters, and – what an actress! – she’s fearless as she reveals herself in that transformation. Morella darts like a barricuda through the unchartered waters of this living room situation. He physically embodies a character used to cutting through rules and red tape, but by the end he sits, flopped on the floor and gasping.
The design team that brought Art to Signature Theatre has been reassembled for this show. The set by the fabulous James Kronzer should get a spread in Washington’s Best Homes and features low and sleek contours, all steel and glass, white leather furniture, and wall paper which can only be described as embossed with a silver hamster-maze pattern. Through the windows is the skyline of Manhattan as seen from Brooklyn. He is joined by Colin K. Bills (lighting), Matt Rowe (Sound), and Kathleen Geldard (Costumes), who together designed this show with nuanced, impeccable style.
Playwright Christopher Hampton has done the able translation from the French, though our sources tell us he was booted from working on the film version for which Reza partnered with Roman Polanski. (This could be her next play for the characters alone.)
God of Carnage doesn’t show us so much who we are, but our impulses and what we would like to do. Who wants to scurry through the streets looking for a lost pet? Who doesn’t want to throw a loud cell-phoning braggart’s phone into a handy vessel of water? Don’t we all want to believe really in the soothing powers of art and work to ease the suffering in Darfur? Reza’s mirror shows us that we sometimes care more about hamsters than each other, more about our coffee table books showing proud and beautiful people in developing countries than about our closest relationships?
But let’s not think about that today. This God of Carnage is a sure fire comedy that people will love seeing and laughing at. At a mere 70 minutes without intermission, there’s plenty of time to get to a bar and stoke up before the games begin at home.
God of Carnage runs thru June 24, 2012 at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave, Shirlington Village, Arlington, VA.
God of Carnage
By Yasmina Reza
Translated by Cristopher Hampton
Directed by Joe Calarco
Produced by Signature Theatre
Reviewed by Susan Galbraith
Running Time: 1 hour, 10 minutes with no intermission
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