God of Carnage
Written by Yasmina Reza
Directed by Eleanor Holdridge
Through April 7 at Everyman Theatre
The backdrop to the stage for Everyman Theatre's new production, God of Carnage, says it all: dogs attack a boar, all "red in tooth and claw." The play, by Yasmina Reza, uses light farce to make the seriously Hobbesian point that underneath the thin veneer of society is a war of all against all, a state of nature where human life is, famously, nasty, brutish, and short.
Reza's four characters-the Raleighs and the Novaks-come together at the apartment of the latter couple to talk through a little situation that occurred between their sons: Benjamin Raleigh knocked out Henry Novak's teeth with a stick.
Ah, childhood. Of course, what begins as a civil conversation between the adults devolves into all manner of viciousness-after all, protecting one's children brings out the animal instincts in everyone. But as Reza's script makes clear, it also brings out our pride, our vanity, and our viciousness.
Alan Raleigh (Tim Getman), a corporate lawyer who openly espouses the titular god of carnage, is the closest to the precipice to start with. He frequently expresses his impatience with the meeting and constantly answers his cellphone to give a drug company cynical advice on what to do about a product that is causing disturbing side effects. Whereas the other characters change, Getman's Alan doesn't have far to go. He begins as a caricature and even when the script gives him a 180 degree turn, he plays it in the same utterly unsurprising vein-lying on the floor pouting that it is the worst day of his life after his wife ruins his cellphone.
The only time Getman's character pushes beyond the caricature of the Social Darwinist lawyer is when he becomes genuinely impressed with Veronica Novak (Deborah Hazlett), the "strong personality" of the other couple, who is, on the surface, his polar opposite. Veronica, an art lover writing a book on genocide in Darfur, is the driving force behind this meeting (it's part of her overall bourgeois insistence on justice and rightness). While the evening's events challenge everything she believes in, Alan finds himself impressed by the passion with which she holds her beliefs, creating the most compelling relationship in the drama.
Alan's own wife, Annette (Megan Anderson), is dismissed by the entire group as all "surface" even though she has just literally spilled her guts in an uproariously funny vomit scene. But because Annette is written as a wishy-washy, vacillating character, Anderson has room to inject nuance into her portrayal of the character, as does Christopher Bloch in his Michael Novak, a nebbish-y, mama's-boy vendor of household goods like toilet fittings. Michael begins by following his wife's lead, but after what turns out to be a nostalgic discussion of his own boyhood "gang" and accusations of cruelty after the "murder" of a hamster, Michael declares: "We tried to be nice, we bought tulips, my wife passed me off as a liberal, but I can't keep this bullshit up. . . . What I am and always have been, is a fucking Neanderthal."
"Aren't we all," Alan responds.
"No. No. I'm sorry, we are not all fucking Neanderthals," Veronica protests.
Exchanges such as this allow the alliances between the individuals to continue to shift so that one moment the couples are allied internally against one another and the next, the foursome breaks up along gender lines, pitting the males against the females. And then the dynamic shifts again so that the "strong" partners are allied against the "weak," ultimately showing that domestic life is a war of all against all.
The scenario follows perfectly from the play's central thesis and allows for some truly funny performances by the cast. But the script also feels a bit too thesis-driven-as if it has this point that it will pound us over the head with. This is most glaringly, and unamusingly, apparent when Michael complains about the "Sudanese coons" whom his wife studies and when Annette calls the young Novak boy a "faggot." It is as if Reza has mistaken Archie Bunker for Thomas Hobbes, so that the point is not that deep below the surface of civilization we are all brutes, but that barely beneath the much thinner surface of manners we are all bigots-as if the liberal Michael Novak, and by extension the audience, is only a glass of fancy rum and a disagreement away from reactionary eruptions. With the giant painting as the backdrop, the discussions of Darfur, and the riff on Francis Bacon's meat-like paintings, it is all just a little too obvious-and if there is a convincing case to make here, it is made as subtly as if directed by a Fox newscaster or Alan Raleigh, to whose level the rest of the characters ultimately sink.
But subtlety is not everything and director Eleanor Holdridge brings the most out of the comedy in the sparkling, witty dialogue, which flows with the charm of Oscar Wilde. And certainly, most members of the audience see themselves reflected in at least one of the actors' outrageous statements-Michael's claim that "I'm not going to let myself be told how to behave by some 9-year-old snot-nose" seemed to resonate with the audience as much as it did with Alan.
While God of Carnage spends its entire 85 minutes making the case for our brutishness, there seems to be a silent coda to the play, which does not really have an ending, just a stopping point. After so much drinking, cursing, lunging, and puking, we are left somehow imagining that these two couples will-or at least could-come to find themselves friends precisely because they have each known the others' ugliness so clearly.