Moms and dads, behaving badly in 'God of Carnage'
By Nelson Pressley
Tuesday, Apr. 24, 2012
In "God of Carnage," the comic belch of a play by the sensationally popular French provocateur Yasmina Reza, two upscale couples sit down for a civil conversation and quickly make each other sick.
Their kids bickered on the playground, and one smacked the other in the face with a stick. That's more or less what the four adults do to each other all night, only the wallops are verbal (at least to start). That makes for a good degree of fun in the hotly acted production, which opened Sunday night in the 140-seat Ark at Signature Theatre.
In a tidy comment on the grown-ups' self-absorption, set designer James Kronzer's spotless interior features expensive-looking armless leather furniture and shows no hint of being kid-friendly. It is here that the adults - hosts Michael and Veronica, whose son was hit, and guests Alan and Annette, whose lad did the hitting - nibble pastry and sip coffee until mankind's natural animus, as Reza sees it, gets the best of them.
Then the gloves come off, although they were barely ever on in this litigious-minded comedy. As Veronica, whose kinship with victims has her writing about atrocities in Africa, Naomi Jacobson practically flinches at the insensitivities casually delivered by Alan, a corporate defender with an ear constantly to his cellphone. Alan, rendered flawlessly by Paul Morella, is working to keep a big and reckless pharmaceutical company out of the soup. As directed by Joe Calarco, Jacobson and Morella often quarrel from opposite ends of the stage, as if they've been flung ridiculously far apart by opposed magnetic poles.
The gentler spouses don't stay gentle for long. Michael, who runs a household wholesale business (doorknobs, plumbing parts), is played by the sizable, voluble Andy Brownstein, who is at his best when Michael breaks out some expensive rum and stops making nice. Annette, dressed in a power suit as sharp as her husband's (she's a wealth manager), is perhaps more empathetic than the rest. There's a surprise in the first 30 minutes that accounts for that, yet Vanessa Lock still plays the part with a predatory prowl in her high-heeled step.
If you're familiar with Reza and you hated her "Art" - the three-man fable about a friendship that sours when one of them buys an expensive plain-white painting - "God of Carnage" won't convert you. The debate around Reza has to do with whether her accessible plays live up to her philosophical themes or if she's just a boulevard entertainer in highbrow drag. The latter may be closer to the mark.
In "Carnage," Reza's trap does eventually seem artificial, and Calarco's fast-paced production begins to huff a bit; at 75 minutes, it's a runaway train. On the other hand, it's refreshing to see a playwright revealing characters in real time, relying on a tricky current of words - pronouncements, feints, punch lines - to drive the show. Reza's plays are pleasurable because they are events for actors.
At Signature, the cast is certainly taking its swings - Jacobson steaming and Morella purring, Brownstein angling and Lock insisting. (Plus everybody jumps and pouts.) The surprises have the pop of comic grenades as this foursome devours itself with flair.