‘God of Carnage’ a play for those unafraid of Virginia Woolf
Souls bare and tempers flare in this engaging Covey Theatre Company production
Serious question: Is God of Carnage a play or a reality show? It’s difficult to tell, since the abstract dialogue leaves few clues as to the substance of human interaction among the play’s four characters.
But whatever message, meaning or moral may be buried in her script, French playwright Yasmina Reza deserves credit for taking a cue from Jerry Springer about drawing crowds to theatrical events in America: No one ever went broke having couples trade invectives and rip each other apart in the presence of total strangers.
The Covey Theatre Company’s production of this Tony Award-winning dark comedy, which opened last Friday at the Oncenter BeVard Room, offers Central New Yorkers a taste of both Reza and Springer — and without commercial interruption. I may have left the theater wondering whether there was a point to the play, but I’ll be the first to admit that the show was thoroughly entertaining. Hell of a fight, too.
Originally penned Le Dieu du Carnage and translated into English by screenwriter Christopher Hampton (Dangerous Liasons, Atonement), God of Carnage starts out with two seemingly well-adjusted, upper middle class couples sitting in a Brooklyn living room. They are discussing a fight that had broken out between their 11-year-old sons the day before, and how best to handle the situation. Soon, the layers of civility begin to peel away and social amenities are abandoned as the conversation intensifies, followed by finger pointing and tongue wagging. Before long, what started out as Ozzie and Harriet has reached the threshold of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Perhaps Reza’s message is that beneath the cloak of civility, adults — like children — are combative bullies. But there seems to be more at work here (or should I say, less?). As the play’s belligerent elements gain momentum, the fighting and bickering take on a life of their own, seemingly untethered to the plot.
Lack of emotional intelligence is hardly a message; it’s a reality. And that pretty much sums up God of Carnage: It’s a reality show. A pair of dysfunctional adult couples is placed in a living room that serves as a virtual boxing ring and they duke it out in front of a cheering studio audience.
If this doesn’t fit your definition of entertainment, you may be in for a pleasant surprise. Each character in this Covey production is like a pot sitting a four-burner stove top, kindled to heat up at different speeds. The careful timing and intensity of the four actors as they run the gamut from simmer to a full boil is what makes this “reality show” worth watching.
Though the four characters reach their respective boiling points at different times, the two female leads — Aubry Ludington Panek and Moe Harrington — show greater depth in their characters’ transformations than their male counterparts, as they morph from mild-mannered housewives to an ornery pair of femmes fatales.
Reza gives Annette Raleigh, Panek’s character, the widest range of emotions — and Panek makes the transition from polite, timid and apologetic to mildly assertive and eventually bitterly sarcastic, with the depth of a virtuoso.
The role of Annette is all too tempting to play for cheap laughs, such as when she vomits over her hosts’ coffee table — which drew the biggest (and longest) laughs from an audience apparently hungry for slapstick. But to Panek’s credit, she never overacted or stooped to kitsch.
Her lengthy (though largely incoherent) rant near the end of the play about men and their gadgets — the longest monologue in the play — was softly understated and curiously poignant. Only moments before, Panek’s character had snatched her husband’s mobile phone from his hands and dunked it triumphantly in a vase of water housing tulips. Then, by way of justification for the deed, she launches into a dreamy but vague speech about the nature of men. When host Michael Novak (Mark Cole) attempts to excuse her odd behavior by suggesting “rum makes you crazy,” her answer somehow resonates with the audience when she calmly replies, “I’ve never felt more normal.”
Like Annette, the role of Veronica Novak (Moe Harrington) encompasses a wide range of emotions, though it takes considerably longer for the control-minded hostess to shed the cloak of civility and reach her own boiling point — aided by a bottle of rum, which she never leaves far from reach.
Though controlling, Veronica appears earnest and mature when we first see her, giving Harrington little more to do than read her lines in muted fashion and look sincere. But when at last she ignites her inner core, the transformation is that much more breathtaking.
Harrington’s character gets the least amount of laughs from Reza’s script, so it’s important that Annette play her part straight, which Harrington does — at least until the bottle of rum winds up in her hands.
As Veronica’s husband, Michael, Mark Cole reaches his personal point of rage after his wife, echoing Annette’s sentiments about how cruel Michael must be to have gotten rid of their daughter’s pet hamster (Nibbles), derides him for releasing the animal outdoors. On the heels of several earlier reminders about this act of cruelty, Cole blows his top and lets out an ear-curling “F**k the hamster!”
Robb Sharpe, as Annette’s husband Allen, plays the part of the annoying pharmaceutical lawyer constantly taking calls on his cell phone about how to manage damage control over the company’s impending government safety recall. Sharpe’s even-tempered behavior in the midst of both the drug company crisis and the rising tensions in the living room was in itself an annoyance — giving him the appearance of being detached from (or at least disinterested in) the action taking place among the other three. Even when his character’s precious cell phone was yanked from his hand and submerged in water, Sharpe could not project the necessary degree of rage to place his temper in the same arena as the others.
The playwright’s change of venue from France to Brooklyn creates some unnecessary non-sequiturs. For example, early in the play Allen announces that he cannot stay long because he is scheduled to argue a case tomorrow at the International Criminal Court at The Hague. Why not simply The Supreme Court in Washington D.C.?
And then there’s the clafoutis dessert that Veronica serves to her guests. Clafoutis (pronounced Kla-FOO-tee) is an Occitan word that describes a dish of apples and pears from the Limousin region in France. I was born and raised in Brooklyn, and never did I one come across this dish. Might I suggest a Charlotte Russe, instead?
Heater’s attractive set — a black couch and loveseat separated by a coffee table, and the stand-alone bar at the far corner stage left — was handsome, simple and functional.
Reza gives the last big moment in the play to Veronica, who tries to reassure her daughter (via phone) about the fate of the child’s beloved hamster. In a relaxed, hushed and reassuring tone of voice Harrington tells her daughter:
“Nibbles is very resourceful… She’ll eat… she’ll eat leaves… acorns, conkers…she’ll find things, she knows what food she needs… Worms, snails, stuff that drops out of rubbish bins…”
These curious words of comfort may not offer a great deal of solace to the child, but leaves the audience with at least a specter of hope for the prognosis for adult relationships: Somehow, they’ll survive.
And if not, there’s always that bottle of rum.
What: God of Carnage, by Yasmina Reza
Who: The Covey Theatre Company
Where: BeVard Room, John H. Mulroy Civic Center, Montgomery St., Syracuse, NY
Performance reviewed: April 10, 2015
Length: About 1 hour and 45-minutes, without intermission
Tickets: All seats $26. Call 315-420-3729 or thecoveytheatrecompany.com
Family guide: Profanity, adult situations, spraying of scented fragrance (for those with allergies)