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Chicago by John Olson

God of Carnage
Goodman Theatre

Also see John's review of Meet John Doe

God of Carnage
Keith Kupferer, David Pasquesi, Beth Lacke and Mary Beth Fisher
Even with a Tony Award for Best Play in 2009 and commercial success on Broadway, producers were not able to line up enough interest for a national tour of this international hit comedy. Thanks to the Goodman, though, Chicago audiences will get to see God of Carnage, and with a cast that I suspect will compare quite favorably to the Broadway originals (who incidentally, are soon to open in a Los Angeles production).

The premise of Yasmina Reza's short play—around 80 minutes, with no intermission—is presumably well-known to readers of this board. It concerns two sets of parents—both couples are affluent residents of a trendy Brooklyn neighborhood—who are meeting at the home of one to draft a statement about a playground altercation between their two 11-year-old sons. One boy hit the other with a stick—potentially killing one or two of his teeth, though the exact fate of the teeth is not yet known. They finish drafting the statement—presumably going to an insurance company—easily and civilly enough, but things start to get sticky when Veronica, the mother of the boy who was physically attacked, suggests a meeting between the two boys to reconcile. She thinks all the parents should attend, and that's a problem because Alan, the father of the attacker, is about to leave for a court case in Europe. He's a high-powered attorney defending a pharmaceutical company in a World Court trial in The Hague. It's just a bump in the road at first, but Reza carefully and mostly believably has this meeting deteriorate into a battle of words between and within the two couples.

The four characters of this play—originally set in Paris and first performed in Berlin—are recognizable stereotypes from other plays and films set among upscale professionals, but they're played freshly and fully here under Rick Snyder's direction. Mary Beth Fisher is Veronica—a meticulously stylish, appearance-conscious and socially concerned writer who has published several books about the human crises in Africa. Fisher perfectly captures Veronica's transparent efforts to maintain civility and stay in control, and her eventual total loss of it. Veronica is married to Michael, a more rough-hewn type who's been successful as an appliance retailer and is a little uncomfortable living the life of nouveau-riche. Craig Kupferer, who sort of specializes in these regular guy roles, is quite comfortable and natural in the part performed on Broadway by James Gandolfini. The attorney Alan is played by David Pasquesi. Self-important and continually taking calls on his cell phone, it's his arrogance that sparks the degeneration of this little conference when his impatience and bluntness pierces the forced civility that Veronica attempts. Pasquesi has a strong and distinctive take on the character that drives the action of the play. Alan's wife Annette is the archetypical mousy spouse, deferential to her more successful husband. As played by Beth Lacke, her simmering resentment of that role bubbles up and explodes in grand fashion.

Snyder smoothly directs this journey so seamlessly that the gradual descent into verbal assaults and physical mayhem, assisted by a certain amount of alcohol, seems entirely logical. Reza's thesis—that aggressiveness and protection of self-interest come naturally to us, while kindness and civility are learned and practiced—is shown clearly. Kids can be cruel. "My son's a savage," Alan claims. It's only as we age that we learn to live more cooperatively, but Reza's comedy shows how a fair amount of stress combined with even modest amounts of alcohol can bring us back to our baser nature in minutes. The distance between the audience and the stage is enough to give us only a measure of detachment from the characters that makes the play entertaining, while giving enough recognizable behavior to see some of ourselves in it.

God of Carnage will play in the Goodman's Albert Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn, Chicago, through April 17, 2011.Tickets are available at GoodmanTheatre.org, by phone at 312-443-3800, or at the box office.


Photo: Eric Y. Exit

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-- John Olson



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