'God of Carnage' explores the fine print in the social contract at The Players.
Yasmina’s Reza’s “God of Carnage” is now enthroned in the Players’ latest “backstage” production. On the surface, it’s a comedy of bad manners. Deep down, it’s a diagnosis of civilization and its discontents.
Christopher Hampton’s deft translation turns French to English and shifts the scene from Paris to gentrified Brooklyn. However translated or transposed, it’s still Reza’s play, with the same fundamental conflict.
Everything starts with a playground battle: One boy whacks another with a stick and knocks out two of his teeth. Their highly civilized parents gather to discuss the incident. In this corner, the victim’s parents: Veronica (Jaszy McAllister) and Michael (Dylan Jones). She’s an art-loving intellectual writing a book on the tragedies of Darfur; he’s a hen-pecked husband who runs a hardware store.
In the opposing corner, the attacker’s parents: Alan (Paul Hutchison) and Annette (Carrie McQueen). He’s a high-priced lawyer adept at helping corporations weasel out of responsibility; she’s a skittish wife on the verge of a nervous breakdown. The couples have a rational discussion — for a minute or two. Irrational discussion continues for the rest of the play.
They quickly bog down in terminology. Was the attacker “armed” with a stick? Why not “carrying?" Or “holding?" (Their talk resembles the Vietnamese peace accords, which snagged on the shape of the conference table.) Tempers flare, and Annette barfs on an irreplaceable art book. Michael runs for the hair dryer and tries to dry the book, playing peacemaker like a nervous middle child. Veronica tries to seize the moral high ground. Alan says there’s no such thing — in one of the rare moments he’s not shouting advice to a shady client on his cell phone. Then Michael breaks out the rum. And it’s all downhill from there.
It’s all very funny. The big laughs revolve around one big joke: These four adults are theoretically civilizing their children. They act like children instead. That big joke hides big ideas. But analysis isn’t the point on stage.
Reza’s play works as a kind of music: a counterpuntal fugue of barfing, cell phone interruptions, and bickering. (Think Jacques Tati with a hint of Ionesco.) Director Elliott Raines and assistant director Donna DeFant nicely capture the playwright’s rat-a-tat comic rhythms. Drag the play out, and it’s deadly dull. The directors keep it moving, and it’s hilarious.
McAllister’s Veronica is on the side of the angels — but she’s no angel. (Who is?) She brings her public face to the parents’ meeting, but her mask has cracks. McAllister’s performance hints of a controlling, materialistic side that Veronica doesn’t want people to see. And Jones’ Michael is clearly under her thumb. He gives lip service to his wife’s liberal values, but it’s a front to keep her happy. In Michael’s unrepentant secret heart, he’s a racist, chauvinist pig.
Paul Hutchison’s Alan is the prototypical sleazy lawyer, and he doesn’t try to hide it. (His unseen client is a pharmaceutical company peddling a pill with nasty side effects. Alan’s working out a clever cover-up to bury the news until after the next shareholders meeting.) McQueen’s Annette is the victim of cognitive dissonance. Her husband is one of the bad guys. If she wants to stay happily married, she can’t let her brain process that thought. Alcohol clearly helps.
The Socratic squabble unfolds in the high-rise apartment of the victim’s parents. DeFant’s set is a clean, well-lit place — a tasteful oasis of civilization and a refuge of calm and comfort in a harsh and brutal world. Which, of course, it isn’t.
In a nutshell: two bourgeoisie couples bicker and get nowhere. Raines doesn’t give you time to think during their quarrel. That’s exactly why it’s funny. See the play and leave your thinking cap at home. You’ll laugh your head off, I promise. Once you start thinking …
Well then, it’s not so funny.
But I couldn’t help it, so here’s my take …
As every “Star Trek” fan will tell you, negotiation is the answer to every conflict. Violence is never the solution.
In the real world, some very unpleasant people would disagree.
They figured something out a long time ago: If you hurt people or scare the daylights out them, you can take their stuff and tell them what to do. If that’s too much trouble, you can kill them and take their stuff.
Might makes right.
This thuggish worldview isn’t limited to Brooklyn playgrounds. How does it play out in the real world? “God of Carnage” drops a few hints. The child warriors of the Congo; the sickening genocide in Darfur; even the priceless art book Annette pukes on. (Ironically, it’s four-color compendium of the atrocity exhibitions of Francis Bacon — a painter obsessed with the abattoir of the 20th century.) Alan’s law practice boils down to letting the powerful get away with little murders. His weapon of choice is a cell phone, not a Bowie knife, so there’s no literal blood on his hands.
How is talk going to change all that?
That’s the moral issue at the heart of the play. But Reza steers the conversation away from the bloody elephant in the room.
Alan never puts the matter bluntly: “Your kid called my kid a snitch. He got what was coming to him. End of story.” That’s not his style. Instead, he gets all philosophical about the “God of Carnage” and a Hobbesian war of all against all. To stay on the safe side, the playwright adds another red herring. Michael left his kid’s annoying hamster on a city sidewalk, probably to die. That’s violence, too — a clear case of moral equivalency! Everybody’s guilty; nobody’s hands are clean; why talk?
Despite her flaws, Veronica’s the only character with a shred of moral authority here. She’s a true liberal, and a true believer in the civilized arts of discussion, debate, negotiation and reconciliation. Veronica despises violence, but she doesn’t put her cards on the table. “What your child did was wrong. I don’t care what my child said. There’s simply no excuse.” But that sounds like a moralistic value judgment — and she never says it. That just isn’t Veronica’s style.
The God of Carnage remains on the throne.
IF YOU GO
“God of Carnage” runs through March 19 at The Players Theatre, 838 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota. For more information, call 365-2494 or visit theplayers.org.
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