With an Iranian father and Hungarian mother, both of whom felt it necessary to leave their respective homelands due to their Jewish faith, perhaps Parisian born playwright Yasmina Reza’s obsession with conflict is brought into clearer focus.
In her first stage success “Art”, a trio of long time friends find their relationship strained almost to the breaking point over the purchase by one of an expensive work of “art”. The “art” being a completely white canvas. Reza seems to feel no matter how innocuous the moment appears, beneath the veneer of civilization lies a festering bile of primitive aggression, and in “God of Carnage” that veneer, for all its shine, is tissue thin.
Before the curtain rises, two 11-year-olds have met in a playground confrontation, which ended with one using a stick to knock two teeth from the mouth of the other. This event propels us into the play’s opening as the parents of each child meet to discuss the matter and resolve it “civilly”.
Alan (David Nevell) and Annette (Alet Taylor), the parents of the stick wielder, are definitely the power couple. He is a successful lawyer, who for most of the evening has a cell phone grafted to his ear assuring a panicky pharmaceutical company, “We’re not gonna take the medicine off the market because one or two people are bumping into furniture.” She is simply a “wealth manager” prim and tightly wound – “I don’t have a sense of humor and I have no intention of acquiring one.” They have come to the home of Michael (Greg Derelian) and his wife Veronica (Leslie Stevens), whose son is minus the two incisors. They are of a socially different “tribe”. Michael is a wholesaler of household goods; she works hard at being part of the intelligentsia and is writing a book on Darfur. The two pairs of parents blithely prance down the path of reconciliation heedless of the Bouncing Bettys the playwright has littered the stage with.
The evening devolves with the surefootedness of an Arthur Murray dance pattern. A devastation of tears, accusations, insults and despair fueled by excellent rum and punctuated by a prodigious display of puking not only shred that aforementioned “veneer of civilization” but slices and dices it into particles too small even to serve as confetti.
In the “carnage” of the evening, alliances have shifted between the differing spouses, then to the genders, until finally four spent and isolated individuals are left on the stage emotionally bleeding in their separate corners.
The International City Theatre puts on stylish and stunningly sleek productions, and “God of Carnage” is no exception. The cast is first-rate. David Nevell plays Alan the lawyer with such unctuous panache that one almost fears for the other actors slipping in his slime trail as they cross behind him. Greg Derelian is not quite the Neanderthal that the role calls for (James Gandolfini played the part on Broadway). But what Derelian lacks in knuckle dragging he makes up for with the arrogance of masculine detachment with which he’s armored himself. Alet Taylor and Leslie Stevens cross swords with ferocity that would have cowarded Errol Flynn and Basil Rathbone, and director Caryn Desai has done a skillful job in choreographing the brutality. It is a honey sweet production. It is the play itself which I find less to my taste.
Now considering the London production won the 2009 Olivier Award and the Broadway production won the Tony for best new play, I am distinctly in the minority here, but it isn’t a first and I always enjoy the elbow room. (Brendan Lemon of the Financial Times called the play “[a] piece of shallow arrogance.”
One problem is that the Frenchness of the piece doesn’t fit an American setting for me. France is a country where class distinctions are both deeply rooted and historically bloodstained, and so the hair trigger that fires off the conflict of the play is suitable to its society. The play’s original title was “Lay Waste To England For Me” which reflects the same strict sociological structure that can be found in Great Britain.
The American people have been fortunate to avoid the pitfalls of outright class struggle – though the future is not looking rosy. And like Brendan Lemon, I too find the play shallow and Reza more or less the French equivalent of Neil Simon, which isn’t a compliment. But despite the flaws I find in the playwright and the play, I cannot fault the production now playing at the International City Theatre.
Though I cannot see the resemblance, “God of Carnage” has reminded some of the work of Harold Pinter. But Reza seems unable to leave us stewing in the cauldron of annihilation as Pinter would. She is more akin to author William Golding of “Lord of the Flies” fame. Reza winds her play to its conclusion with too slight acts of kindness. Then flying in the face of a choral rendering of nihilistic negativism from the stage, while one mother speaks on the phone pressing lies and false hopes onto her child, another character offers up an olly-olly-oxen free in the simple statement, “What do we know?”