There are many different types of laughter in a theater: Chuckles from slapstick, a knowledgeable laugh at word play… God of Carnage reaches into the audience, grabs hard, and drags out every last ounce of pained, awkward laughter as the cast wrecks each other in a living room demolition derby.
Veronica and Michael Novak are a picture of upper-middle class happiness, until their son is stabbed in the face with a stick, chipping two teeth and exposing a nerve.
The other end of the stick was held by the son of Alan and Annette Raleigh, the Novaks’ opposites. Whereas Michael sells wholesome home goods, Alan is a lawyer defending Big Pharma. While Veronica is an empowered author, Annette is Alan’s second (or third, or maybe fourth) wife, unable to get him off his cell phone and engaged with raising their son.
The two couples meet at the Novak residence to calmly discuss rational next steps after the assault, but the scene devolves into screams and slurs, violence and vomit.
Alan (Nigel Reed) is an almost cartoony villain. He takes calls throughout the show to insist that the pharmaceutical company who employs him dodge any culpability for their dangerous drug’s side effects and instead attack the credibility of the media reporting on their wrongdoing. He doesn’t want to be there and could hardly think less of his son, but cares just enough to enjoy sadistically tormenting the Novaks and his own wife. Alan is a caricature, but Reed breathes reality back into the character.
It might be more accurate to call Jeanne Dillon-Williams’s Veronica Alan’s opposite: the archetypical enlightened liberal, who would never kill but with kindness. In a way, both she and Alan railroad their spouses into living as secondary characters. But all three reach Alan levels of cruelty, using the tension in the air as they try to maintain civility as a drawn bow to fire something much more pointed.
The sweat pouring off James Gallagher’s neck brings a visceral reality to Michael Novak’s pent up anger. His dark side is most surprising, as he starts siding with Alan more and more. The shifting allegiances keep the play engaging in spite of the cringing.
Annette Raleigh gets a slow start, taking the longest to unravel, but Miranda Zola delights in Annette’s new spine once she finds it. She also executes a great sleight of hand in the show’s sole special effect.
Though all on-stage action happens in one living room, director Steven Carpenter oversees masterful blocking. As the hour and 15-minute argument plays out, the cast keeps the stage picture dynamic, making full use of the set’s many locations, without ever feeling unmotivated in their movements.
Another high point hangs over the stage, a sculpture created by Jane Knuth. While the set below looks like a typical, orderly living room, Knuth’s sculpture embodies the eponymous god of carnage looming over the action. It is a malignant tumbleweed, at once both growing outward and withering back into nothing. Lighting designer Marianne Meadows accents the sculpture with different colors over the course of the play, again a good touch to keep the single, real-time scene engaging and varied.
Playwright Yasmina Reza does not ask whether the audience believes that all people are inherently awful and the god of carnage reigns. That is taken as a given. Rather, the question is how much aimless carnage the audience is willing to watch.
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God of Carnage
closes March 26, 2017
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While the story begins with the debate over how to react to the two boys’ fight, it strays from the inciting incident in favor of a more meandering brutality. Almost as if under the influence of the malevolent bramble above, each character tears into the others over any topic where the skin is thin, damning any civility or loyalty. It relies on the assumption that we are more honest when angry to convince the audience that there is greater meaning to be had as the couples tear each other and themselves to pieces.
Though Carpenter keeps the argument from becoming boring, it is not believable that it should continue for so long. Time and time again, the Novaks move to throw the Raleighs out or the Raleighs announce their exit. And yet, one “But one more thing” after another forces these characters, who have stated in no uncertain terms their intention to leave, to continue the fruitless fight. Reza goes so far as to have Alan pour a drink for everyone roughly 45 minutes in.
As the typical evil lawyer and nasty woman have it out and men talk about marriage like it’s a trap set by women, God of Carnage is sadly familiar. It inevitably bottoms out at shock value slurs. And yet, the uncomfortable laughter is infectious, and a fine cast guest starring Knuth’s sculpture is enough to keep the audience’s blood pumping.
God of Carnage by Yasmina Reza. Translated by Christopher Hampton. Directed by Steven Carpenter. Performed by Nigel Reed, Miranda Zola, James Gallagher, and Jeanne Dillon-Williams. Costumes by Christina McAlpine. Props by Joann Gidos and Mike Gidos. Lighting by Marianne Meadows, Sound by Steven Carpenter. Stage managed by Joey Aubry and Magdalene Urban. Sculpture by Jane Knuth. Produced by Lucina Merry-Browne and Compass Rose Theatre. Reviewed by Marshall Bradshaw.