GOD OF CARNAGEby Yasmina Reza
English translation by Christopher Hampton
Dallas Theater Center
Directed by Joel Ferrell
Scenic Design - John Arnone
Costume Design - Thomas Charles LeGalley
Lighting Design - Natalie Robin
Sound Design - Bruce Richardson
Stage Manager - Kathryn Davies
Reviewed Performance: 5/18/2012
Reviewed by Mary L. Clark, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
Yasmina Reza's play, God of Carnage, has more questioning layers than baklava as she presents situations of both astonished indignation and probable rueful identification. The mirror is held up high in this play and I dare anyone to say they do not see their own reflection.
Debuting in Zurich in 2006, God of Carnage played in Paris, where it was originally set, in 2008. First written in French, it was translated into English by Christopher Hampton and performed in London the same year. Picking up an Olivier Award, the play moved overseas to Broadway, changed settings, some character names and colloquialisms, and garnered a Tony Award for Best Play in 2009.
Reza takes a simple premise - two sets of parents meeting to discuss the behavior of their sons who got into an altercation over who can join whose gang. Resolving the issue in socially acceptable childhood fashion, one boy wields a stick and the other ends up with two broken teeth. But this same issue makes their parents' hackles rise, especially maternally. Visualize a mother lion attacking the crocodile for snatching one of her cubs at the lake's edge.
Dallas Theater Center takes the playwright's premise and completely blows it out onstage in a highly energetic, emotionally-charged production as full of questions as absurdities, with few satisfying answers.
The meeting of the minds starts out on a high defensive level and never lets up. Reza intensifies that by having the play begin in the middle of an incident. Annette and Alan Raleigh, parents of the "armed" boy, come to have an afternoon "chat" at the home of Veronica and Michael Novak and discuss the "disfigured" son and what is to be done. Both couples are comfortably middle class and are keeping politeness in their subtly clenched smiles.
Each comes fully prepared with weapons drawn. Veronica has typed up a legally-worded statement, copy to the Raleighs, about the incident, and wants to go over it for any corrections, but more so, for acceptance of guilt. This they believe will give them control of the situation. Alan retaliates with his cell phone, making and receiving business calls and texts incessantly and interrupting the proceedings.
He takes complete focus, indicating his lack of interest in anything they have to say. Michael volleys back with hospitality, offering his wife's French dessert and espressos to rise above Alan's obvious baseness. With this gesture he assumes social superiority and his ability to manipulate people. Annette uses her career and well-appointed clothing as sword and shield to display importance and that attention must be paid.
As each one of these seemingly intelligent, sensible people lose sight of the original intent, politically correct bubbles burst, pretentions are shed and the situation accelerates at unbelievable speed to name-calling, pushing, tears, tantrums, destruction and one horrific incident that brings it all down to humanity at its lowest denominator.
Equally as unbelievable is that God of Carnage is uproariously funny. Whether from shock or nervousness, laughter from the audience is almost continuous throughout the short sixty-six minutes of this one act. Just when you think it could not be more outrageous, Reza adds another fragile layer, building on the hilarity. It's such a release to see people onstage doing and saying exactly what you've always secretly wanted to and getting away with it! Getting those moral demons out vicariously through others has never been so pleasurable.
Reza includes many side issues to the mix; more layers of deception taking us away from the human condition. Alan's calls have him dealing with a pharmaceutical client whose newest product has been deemed hazardous - Michael's mother is taking that drug - and Alan is doing legal spin control on the company and the media in his futile attempt to gain the upper hand. Animal abuse, child abuse, alcoholism, racism, bullying and female degradation, all rear ugly heads at one point or another during this one afternoon of human devaluation.
Joel Ferrell pretty much stays out of the way in directing God of Carnage, tidying up the margins but letting the script take precedence. In his notes, he says that "humans function in this pretend bubble, a fabricated world, especially in modern times". In an age where opinions, judgments and answers come from Drs. Phil and Oz or Judge Judy, when you turn certain assumptions into standard behavior, and then destroy those assumptions, "it gets down to basic needs and protection and anger and everything can spin on a dime". But, after the meltdown and spinout, "everyone goes back to pretending". And oh, does the carnage god spin these four people around in a sea of verbal and physical catharsis.
John Arnone certainly uses some of that bubble of pretention in designing and decorating the Novaks' living room where all the heightened action takes place. Though it says New York City, this home could be in any of our major cities as its splendor and ostentatiousness is not solely East Coast.
Its grandeur is made more so with the floor to ceiling bright red fireplace and video fire. African art is placed in abundance on shelves, living room and hallway walls, the most garish objects being the huge pair of elephant tusks over the fireplace and a zebra rug (even if fake) under the rotund coffee table, like trophies.
Post modern red sofas and ottomans complete the look and it makes me wonder how Michael, who claims he's a "wholesaler of frying pans and stuff", can afford such luxury.
Arnone is also a recycling kind of designer, using similar colors, walls and reupholstered furniture from his last DTC production. A rendering of his design for God of Carnage is in the playbill and that idea became the set for Next Fall. I find it interesting how designs change and shift as the artistic process unfolds.
More assumptions are made with the addition of crystal glass liquor bottle and glasses, large mahogany cigar box, bowls of tulips, and stacks of coffee table tomes placed well in view. All these displays of wealth are like a male peacock's feathers, denoting mastery through possession.
I'll be truthful and admit I don't recollect many sound effects, other than the two cell phones ringing, in Bruce Richardson's design. If there are more, my apologies, but I do feel it's the sign of good design when it doesn't take focus but instead supports the performance (is that schmoozy enough?!) Lighting by Natalie Robin is also supportive in that she uses elements as natural as possible to emulate afternoon sun in such an open room. Costume Designer Thomas Charles LeGalley picked casual clothing for the afternoon meeting. Annette's is a simple, tasteful sleeveless dress with black patent high heels while Veronica is more comfortable in flowing tunic top and pants.
The idea that objects have power (the old saying, "Clothes make the man") is what makes the characters in God of Carnage so universal and compelling. It is obvious they value possessions over people - the cell phone, the clothes, the books, the fine rum, cigars and art - are their idols, their gods. And when those objects, those gods, are damaged or destroyed, there is no personal connection to fall back on, no attachment to simple, realistic human interaction.
The four characters are interchangeable in that they all have the same inert human desire for connection but have fabricated the means to do so. So they game play for reaction, releasing their supposed loved one's skeletons and secrets. Christie Vela emanates snobbery from her very pores as the art appreciating, current cause writer/crusader Veronica. She readily spouts her knowledge of French and Spanish, knows the who's who of the art world but, when easily confronted, falls back on an old friend in a bottle. Husband Michael also possesses that air of superiority and Hassan El-Amin portrays him with an air of mystery. Though never brought up in the play, I feel Michael's profession is not on the up and up to live such a good life and El-Amin humorously interjects that suspicion with his body language and facial expressions.
Sally Nystuen-Vahle makes Annette so pathetic in her attempts to gain some semblance of control or attention. Her low self-esteem and confidence shows in Nystuen-Vahle's body posture, bunched up at the end of the sofa like a stuffed animal on a bed. Her vindictiveness, and victory, also comes physically in a scene that I will not detail, only to say it is possibly one of the most shocking yet technically satisfying moments I can recall onstage. (To the un-credited prop designer, however, I do question the substance.)
The most despised and energetic character is Chris Huey's Alan. Entering with cell phone poised and a toothy sneer, he is immediately dislikeable and he simply thrives on it. As the afternoon situation worsens, each of Alan's escalating outbursts literally lifts him off the ground, he is that angry and out of control.
In fact, each of the actors plays their characters as precariously close to the edge as they do to the stage's edge. They take them right to the precipice and then over the cliff, socially and morally. Physically demanding roles, they hit, push, jump on and over furniture, roll on the floor, stumble, and behave far worse than animals or. . . . children.
In plays of such physical nature, there can be a tendency to let that be the factor. But for every intense encounter there has to be a subtle one for balance, and in God of Carnage some of those subtleties are underplayed or completely ignored. Many times the same characters who argue then turn around and heartily agree with each other. But those hopeful interactions, however brief, are lost when people continually flinging themselves around. The women have a great mom connection that is not punctuated. The men lift their drink glasses high in agreement on some man cave thing, and while it is funny to see them "buddy up" before slinging mud again, there is no indication that, for the briefest of moments, these two see eye to eye. The glimmer of human salvation in all the chaos is quickly snuffed out amongst so much physical, comedic action.
In the post show audience conversation led by Christie Vela, the overwhelming issue was on man's primal nature and the repression of our "inner Neanderthal". Does Yasmina Reza write absurd comedies such as God of Carnage to show that man uses two sets of rules - one for society and one for what we call human nature?
Well, we already know we are primal beings. Louis Leakey and William Campbell found that out many decades ago. At the play's end, when the four people have fallen over that cliff, Reza brings them and the audience to a place of "real knowledge and real redemption (that) only come(s) if you are willing to look at everything stripped down, without the pretend bubble", says Ferrell.
This to me is what Reza intends with God of Carnage. In a global dilemma of upper class separation, meaningless lawsuits, and currently, where a higher college degree or paycheck denotes entitlement, where are our true selves? Are we able to find human connection through a higher power than Armani or Tiffany, or are we relegated to baseness through the possessions we collect and rely on for acceptance?
Dallas Theater Center and Joel Ferrell have once again produced a play that both entertains and enlightens. God of Carnage is hilarious, alarming, crazy and insightful. It is a play full of surprising realizations that will hopefully stay in your head and heart long after its beautiful set is torn down.
Dallas Theater Center, Kalita Humphreys Theater
3636 Turtle Creek Blvd., Dallas, TX 75219
Runs through June 17th
Tuesday - Thursday at 7:30pm, Friday-Saturday at 8:00pm,
Sunday at 7:30pm and Saturday-Sunday matinees at 2:00pm
Tickets are $15-$85 with some performances less expensive the first weeks of the production.
For info & tix: www.dallastheatercenter.org or call 214-880-0202