We are primed to fight, according to Yasmina Reza’s satire “God of Carnage,” in which two couples try to politely discuss what to do about the fact that one of their 11-year-old sons has broken the other one’s teeth. Over 80 real-time minutes, the quartet ends up drunk with self-righteousness, vomiting their opinions all over each other.
Reza, who is French, thought of the play in 2005 and wrote an international stage hit that by 2011 had become the Roman Polanski movie “Carnage.” It’s now off-off-Broadway scale at the Keegan Theatre, where Reza’s scathing social portrait obviously hasn’t lost its bite despite a performance that never finds a real comic stride.
“Carnage” can be a riot because of the way alliances keep shifting; no one’s genuinely on any team except his or her own. That means the marriages feel testy, too, which in this case is one of the things that never quite gels.
In director Shirley Serotsky’s cast, the women are more compelling than the men, though all four characters tend to clear their throats and launch into defensive-aggressive tirades about what is just and who’s offensive. Lolita Marie is the very picture of elegance and composure as Veronica, whose son was whacked with a stick and who has invited the parents of the offender to a reckoning. Marie smilingly plays the hostess; then, with her grin growing stiff, she plays prosecutor demanding accountability for the violence done to her boy.
In diplomatic apologies and fluttery attempts to leave, Susan Marie Rhea conveys the anxious guilt of Annette, mother of the assailant. But how much guilt is Annette willing to bear? Rhea’s Annette gets curt, too, as she disputes how events are characterized and as remedies get proposed that she thinks are invasive.
The men are more one-dimensional here, with DeJeanette Horne as Michael, Veronica’s rather bland, no-nonsense husband, and Vishwas as Alan, the lawyer spouse who, annoyingly, is always on his mobile phone. (It’s still rich that Alan is cynically defending a pharmaceutical company that’s been caught profiting from dangerous medicine.) Horne and Vishwas get some laughs with their Neanderthal characters, bonding over the inevitable thuggery that they say comes with growing up, and spreading out on Matthew J. Keenan’s spare yet consciously comfortable set, guzzling expensive rum and pawing cigars.
It’s a play that needs to explode, though, and this production doesn’t do it enough. The relationships aren’t in the kind of crystalline focus that lets you enjoy when one partner is emotionally cracked by another. The same goes for the scrutiny of values; brutal as Reza’s view is, “God of Carnage” is a pseudo-intellectual tango among people who prize themselves as dancing gorgeously at the evolved vanguard of civilization. The hypocritical kicks are in place, but the show never establishes the delicacy of the fine sensibilities that Reza so gleefully shatters.
God of Carnage, by Yasmina Reza, translated by Christopher Hampton. Directed by Shirley Serotsky. Costumes, Liz Gossens Eide; lights, Katie McCreary; sound design, Niusha Nawab. About 85 minutes. Through May 25 at the Keegan Theatre, 1742 Church St. NW. $36-$58. 202-265-3767. keegantheatre.com.