Thursday, July 24, 2014

Theater review — American Stage's God of Carnage

The grown-ups are on their worst behavior in American Stage’s production of Yasmina Reza's acclaimed play.

Posted By on Thu, Jul 24, 2014 at 10:06 AM

click to enlarge A PLAY WITH PUNCH: God of Carnage’s Cathy Schenkelberg delivers a swift right hook to Katherine Michelle Tanner. -  - CHAD JACOBS
  • A PLAY WITH PUNCH: God of Carnage’s Cathy Schenkelberg delivers a swift right hook to Katherine Michelle Tanner.

How civilized are the civilized?

This is the question that Yasmina Reza pointedly asks in God of Carnage, and her answer is “not very.”

In Reza’s view of things, the veneer of polite mutuality on which society depends is only a few clumsy remarks from all-out war, and our will to make peace has no choice but to struggle against our natural aggressiveness, xenophobia, and sense of wounded victimhood. Do you love human harmony? Well, so do the four characters in this cannily intelligent farce — until a little honesty seeps in and all hell threatens to break loose. Then it becomes clear that forgiveness, sympathy, understanding, patience — all the better angels of our nature — haven’t yet secured a firm foothold in the human soul.

Funny? Yes, Reza’s playis at times hilarious. But it’s the laughter of recognition that cascades through the audience. We know all too well this savage combat. If only there were something foreign about it!

Reza’s play, which is appearing in a first-rate production at American Stage, concerns two couples, the Raleighs and the Novaks, who meet at the latter’s home to discuss a fight between their 11-year-old boys. It seems that young Raleigh swung a stick at young Novak, damaging his lip and breaking two incisors. Now the Raleigh parents, Annette and Alan, have come to express their regrets to Veronica and Michael, and to demonstrate that adults can forge bonds of friendship and respect even when unruly children can’t.

Problem is, these adults keep having minor disagreements that appear in their conversation like cracks in a dam. For example, Veronica wants the Raleighs to know that their child “disfigured” her son, but Alan finds the word excessive. Or Michael thinks Alan, a lawyer, has a “funny job,” and Alan, taking umbrage, mocks Michael’s position selling toilet fittings. Then there are the flaws in the armor of the characters, flaws which their counterparts aren’t too high-minded to attack. Michael, it seems, has kidnapped his daughter’s hamster, which he hates, and abandoned it in the street, after which he told the distraught child that it had run away. Alan, for his part, is taking phone calls every few minutes about a drug called Antril, the maker of which he represents, and the news about which is that it has terrible side effects including impaired motor skills and deafness.

As the points of contention accumulate, as Annette’s weak stomach and Veronica’s disdain for her guests create one contretemps after the next, someone opens a bottle of rum — and then things really get interesting. As for that dignified, conciliatory talk everyone wanted — well, you know about good intentions.

Billy Edwards plays Alan, and it’s a terrific portrayal of a high-powered attorney with a superiority complex and a corrupt streak as substantial as it’s unashamed. Despite all his protestations of regret, Edwards’ Alan makes it clear that he’s only calling upon the Novaks because propriety demands it, and that deep down he couldn’t care less about any 11-year-old’s chipped teeth. As Alan’s wife Annette, Katherine Michelle Tanner turns in an excellent performance, suggesting a woman of deep sentiment who nonetheless can be pushed to obscene rage under the wrong circumstances. (She also has an encounter with some precious art books that you’ll never forget; I can say no more.)

Cathy Schenkelberg is wonderful as Veronica, a writer who sees herself as a lover of downtrodden humanity, but who isn’t too proud to tread down some unaccommodating guests when they provoke her indignation. And the superb Brian Shea is delightful as Michael, who’s all too ready to speak his mind and who has perhaps the funniest speech in the play, about the vileness of marriage and the troublesomeness of children.

Karla Hartley directs with her usual precision and respect for emotional truth (Kerry Glamsch assistant-directs), and Scott Cooper’s stunning set, of an ultra-modern living space too glossy to be actual, lives up neatly to Reza’s instructions of “No realism; nothing superfluous.” The contemporary clothes are by Trish Kelley and the impeccable lighting is by Mike Wood.

I suppose someone might object that God of Carnage is unfair — after all, some people do a notably good job of rising above savagery, and deserve to be acknowledged.

Still, this is a play that understands our worst tendencies, and intrepidly holds up the mirror to them. It succeeds potently as farce; and as an all-too-relevant parable.

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