Sticks and stones: ZACH's God of Carnage is a wickedly good comedy of badmanners
It's not often you get to see civilized adults flipping one another over couches and screaming obscenities in a rum-fueled rage.
But in ZACH's latest non-musical production, God of Carnage, no one on stage is spared from the kind of emotional and physical sparring that is typically reserved for the playground or the wrestling ring. In the intimate setting of the tightly restricted Kleberg stage, you'll feel just like a spectator at a sports arena where barbed words are the weapons of choice.
After two students are suspended for playground roughhousing, the parents of each child meet to discuss the appropriate punishments and reparations. Polite opinions are exchanged and everything goes as expected until parenting methods are called into question. Soon, pleasantries are replaced with open judgment and brutal honesty. One at a time, the two couples in question begin revealing their personal prejudices and all semblance of decorum goes out the window.
The excellently paced and easy to follow single act escalates gradually, with allegiances shifting almost imperceptibly from beat to beat. At once, it's couple versus couple; the next, it's men versus women, and so forth. To the credit of director Matt Lenz, the quixotic nature of these team-ups never feels forced and expsoses each character's vulnerabilities. These adults are revealed to be far more vicious and fearful than their "troublemaker" children, the playground only a pale comparison to the home.
With God of Carnage, Tony Award-winning playwright Yasmina Reza creates a brilliant, honest comedy of manners for today's world. There's a reason audiences have gone crazy over the play since it appeared on Broadway and actors have clamored to sink their teeth into these roles. The Raleighs and the Novaks are real people saying the words we don't otherwise get to say when our superegos are functioning properly.
In ZACH's production, the actors are encouraged to fully commit to their actions, and the play is a delightful exercise in controlled chaos. The localized tornado rips through Michael Raiford's beautiful, upscale set, eventually leaving both the stage and the actors ravaged and exhausted. It takes a hot minute for the action to start, but once it does — and does it ever, in such an impossibly hysterical fashion — it's only a matter of time before these characters are tossing set pieces as readily as verbal assaults.
Mrs. Raleigh (Angela Rawna of NBC's Friday Night Lights) makes up for her meekness towards her absent husband (Eugene Lee, of this year's elegant Book of Grace) with the most (voluntary and involuntary) stage destruction throughout the play. The ever-ready ZACH veteran Lauren Lane eventually trades her ample tears of frustration for drunken revelry and cruel honesty toward her husband, played by the fearlessly honest Thomas Ward.
ZACH's casting of the Raleighs with two African-American actors is a pleasant, noteworthy surprise. While the playwright never addresses the race of the characters in the script, most productions of the play have just assumed these characters are all the same middle-class white faces that have appeared in Reza's other plays. Casting black actors in the roles of one of the couples provides a fresh layer of meaning to a key moment of the climax.
Gender stereotypes are likewise reinforced throughout the play, as the wives are driven to tears and illness by the conflict while the husbands resort to indifference. The men in the play are more detached from the inciting incident, seeing the solution in absolute black and white. While Mr. Raleigh is outwardly gruff and dismissive — of his wife, his child, and of this meeting — it becomes clear that Mr. Novak actually holds much deeper, crueler intolerances that he hides beneath a veneer of good-natured humor.
While it's great fly-on-the-wall fun to witness the dissolution of these two marriages, the overall message of the play is quite bleak. It is one of Ward's lines that really stuck with me after the lights came back up in the theater. Near the climax of the play, he utters — to his wife, no less — that marriage is the cruelest punishment anyone can inflict upon another person.
Maybe it's because I'm not married, or because I don't have children, but the play left me feeling more despondent than cathartic. When just a simple, common occurrence like a playground dispute between two children can rupture two long-standing marriages in one evening, it presents the question of whether the unions were all that strong in the first place.
I would have appreciated more establishment of the unspoken back story for each of the couples, a look at the shared bond that led them to unite in the first place. More resistance to losing this precious commodity would have endeared me more to the situation as a whole. In this instance, it felt as if the Novaks and the Raleighs were already on their way toward dissolution. Watching them tear one another apart, while shocking and hysterical, was already a foregone conclusion.
Partnered couples in the theater exchanged knowing glances throughout the production, so I suppose this is just some of the painful but expected steam-releasing that comes with being in a long-term relationship. At least the drinking and pillow fighting looks like fun...
God of Carnage will soon be released as a feature film adaptation, starring an all-star cast of Academy Award nominees and winners Kate Winslet, Jodie Foster, Christoph Waltz and John C. Reilly. Directed by Roman Polanski, the movie version will be sure to pack in all the realized detail of a big screen. But experiencing the raw, live power of these four flesh and blood actors conveys a much more visceral and immediate response that you won't want to miss.