Arts & Culture
'God of Carnage' exposes atavism in a bourgeois living room
Published: May 16, 2012
For its 2011-12 season, AtticRep has transformed its home, the Attic Stage at Trinity University, into a laboratory for domestic mayhem. In Michael Weller's Fifty Words, presented last December, a son's first night away from home unleashes conjugal hostilities in his parents. August's offering, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, is the touchstone for drama about couples who live in glass houses and throw stones, at each other. Like Edward Albee's portrait of marriage as sanctified cage fighting, God of Carnage — AtticRep's current offering, the second panel in its triptych of marital strife as mixed martial art — sets two couples on stage, to watch them explode.
In a playground spat, one eleven-year-old boy knocks two teeth out of another's mouth. As God of Carnage begins, the parents of the aggressor, Alan and Anette Raleigh, have arrived on a peace mission to the home of the victim's parents, Michael and Veronica Novak. At first, the four are a picture of politesse. Gracious Veronica serves coffee and pastry, while the Raleighs and the Novaks agree to rise above the crude behavior of their children. "We all mean well," says Michael, though it soon becomes apparent that no one does. Alan, a high-priced lawyer who represents a shady pharmaceutical company that markets dangerous drugs, makes the first rude move when he interrupts their conversation to talk on his cell phone. Soon the foursome are tossing insults, and then household objects, at one another. By the end of the play, Veronica, a crusader against social injustice who is writing a book about Darfur, is able to declare: "This is the unhappiest day of my life." Since theater company loves misery, her misfortune is the audience's felicity.
As in her most famous play, Art, which centers on how friends react when a man buys an expensive white canvas, Yasmina Reza is a specialist in provocation, not especially in complex dramaturgy. God of Carnage rests upon a simple premise: that beneath our veneer of civility lurks destructive savagery. "I believe in a god of carnage," declares Alan. "He has ruled uninterruptedly since the dawn of time." And, though the others might pretend to worship other deities, Reza shares Alan's theology. Her play dances a merry quadrille in which Alan and Anette at first pair off against Michael and Veronica, then the men make common cause against their women, and then it's Alan and Veronica against Anette and Michael. Ultimately, especially after the four begin to guzzle rum, it is a loopy Hobbesian war of all against all.
To work as anything but an earnest, clumsy assault on bourgeois pretension, the play, which has been transposed from its original French setting to a house in the Cobble Hill neighborhood of Brooklyn, requires flawless comic execution. And that is exactly what the AtticRep quartet provides. Theirs is an ensemble performance so well-modulated and synchronized that it would be inappropriate to single out any one of the actors for special mention. Out of Reza's misanthropic vision, director Roberto Prestigiacomo, who is also AtticRep's artistic director, and co-director Chelsea Taylor, a senior at Trinity, have created an evening of raucous and riveting entertainment. As Veronica, Gloria Sanchez traces an arc from courteous hostess to raving Amazon. As her husband Michael, Andrew Thornton is not so much passive-aggressive as veering from passive to aggressive, from wimp to boor. He makes his living from wholesale housewares, but when Michael, who has discarded his daughter's pet hamster onto the city streets, declares: "I'm not a member of polite society," he is convincing. Alan, the cunning shyster tied to his cell phone, is the character most obviously loathsome, except that Rick Frederick suggests recesses of decency even in him. Christy Huffman's Anette begins the evening by praising Veronica for playing peacemaker: "We appreciate the fact that you're trying to calm the situation down rather than exacerbate it." But Anette is a resentful supportive wife who is shackled to a husband who thinks "women think too much," and she ends up exploiting the occasion to let everything out.
Spoiler Alert: At a crucial and consequential moment, one of the characters throws up all over the set. However diligently these clowns like us try to clean up their mess, domestic bliss is forever after tainted by the lingering taste of nausea. •
God of Carnage
By Yasmina Reza
Directed by Roberto Prestigiacomo
8pm Thu-Sat, 2:30pm Sun
The Attic Theatre
Trinity University's Ruth Taylor Theatre Building
One Trinity Place
Through May 27