Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Also see Arty's recent review of This Show Is Cheaper than Gas: America on Empty
God of Carnage, by French playwright Yasmina Reza, is framed as a comedy and it is extremely funny, with laughter throughout, but it is comedy with a sharp bite that seeps into our bloodstream and raises our temperature. Two couples living in Brooklyn's upscale Cobble Hill neighborhood are meeting for the first time. The living room they occupy, designed by Rick Polenek, reflects good upper middle-class taste, with spare furnishings, hardwood floors, and piles of "art books"–the mark of a cultured home, as opposed to tacky "coffee table books."
They are brought together by a playground incident between their eleven-year-old sons: Benjamin Raleigh, son of Alan (Peter Christian Hansen) and Annette (Sara Marsh), hit Henry Novak, son of Michael (Luverne Seifert) and Veronica (Mo Perry), with a stick, knocking out two of Henry's teeth in the process. Civil-minded people that they are, instead of calling a lawyer, the Novaks have invited the Raleighs over to discuss the incident as adults and come to a peaceable solution. The impulse seems based on an assumption that, like good street lighting and recycling pickup, mature problem-solving skills and a desire to seize opportunities for their children to learn from their mistakes are public utilities available in gentrified neighborhoods like theirs.
It doesn't take long to discern that this may not be the case. The Novaks have written a statement describing the incident, as reported to them by their child, the injured party, in which Benjamin is described as being "armed with a stick." Henry's father Alan takes issue with the word "armed." The Novaks concede "armed" may be a bit overstated and agree to change it, though clearly they believe "armed" is exactly the right word. But they compromise, that's what civil society is about, right?
From this first difference their encounter spirals gloriously out of control, raking through such topics as the greed of pharmaceutical companies (lawyer Alan is defending one such company's defective product), the shallowness of white liberal guilt over third world suffering (Veronica is working on a book about war and famine raging in Darfur), the pros and cons of childhood gangs, the incessant intrusion of cell phones in our lives, a blistering attack on feminism, and a vivisection of both couples' marriages. All this while eating a gourmet dessert no one has heard of outside neighborhoods like theirs, fielding calls from Michael's health-impaired mother, and revisiting the demise of a pet hamster. What with the pouting, screaming and tears–and did I mention that someone becomes violently ill in the course of events?–how will these four adults ever arrive at a plan to guide their eleven-year-olds to make peace?
No, it is apparent that even with good intentions, these adults are no more capable than their children of finding common ground to stand on. And who's to say their intentions are all that good? Early on, Veronica warmly says to Annette "Thank you for coming," to which Annette obligingly responds "no, it's we who should thank you." Normal politeness there, but when Veronica retorts "There's no need for thanks," she sets herself up as the one holding the cards–I thank you for coming, because I set the agenda. Of the four, Veronica is most committed to talking things out and non-violent solutions that offer a life-lesson, but she knows exactly what she wants: Benjamin must apologize for what he did to Henry–and he must mean it.. What if Benjamin doesn't mean it, what if he felt he had a good reason for hitting Henry? That option is not possible in Veronica's world view.
Both Reza's whip-smart script and director Ben McGovern's astute direction allow the cracks in civility to become increasingly visible. When Alan loudly describes their son as a savage and later calls himself a neanderthal, we are ready to take him at his word. It would be hard to imagine a conversation devolving as completely as this one does in the play's eighty-minute runtime, but McGovern makes it all seem plausible. He draws us in right from the start, having his actors enter the stage with the houselights still on, greeting one another, the visiting Raleighs hanging their outerwear on a coat tree, as we sit close in (with only three rows of seats on each side, everyone is close to the action, as if we too are in the Novaks' living room.
Added to that are the gifts all four actors bring the party. We have Sara Marsh, so adept at conveying a meek, retiring veneer that conceals a tigress; Mo Perry's patrician posture and certainty that, we learn, she fights tooth and nail to maintain; Peter Christian Hansen, able to conceal his inner "neanderthal" with matinee idol looks and a good suit; and Luverne Seifert, overeager to please and keep his anti-liberal rage at bay. They comprise a God of Carnage dream cast. They are dressed, by the way (Marsh designed the costumes), in apparel that aptly represents each of their internal lives.
When God of Carnage opened on Broadway in 2009, it was a major success, with a starry film version directed by Roman Polanski, the title pared down to Carnage. The Guthrie mounted the play in its 2010-2011 season. You may have seen the excellent Guthrie production or the film, or even the original in New York. However, in addition to the exceptional quality of Dark & Stormy's staging, what is compelling now, lending urgency to God of Carnage, is the current social context. We now have a totally partisan nation, poised on opposing sides of a deep and dangerous chasm with nary a whiff of bipartisan governance or social cohesion between those two camps, Reds and Blues. In this challenging and frightening time, God of Carnage is a trenchant allegory for the breakdown of order among adults who should, one would think, know that we can be much better off together. The play leaves us with few answers, but it poses the question clear as day: How to dismantle the god of carnage, described in the play by Alan, and replace it with a god that unifies and heals?
If that sounds like heavy lifting for an evening's entertainment, well it is. But the sharp and constant humor, the slick staging, and the terrific performances make for a smashing time at the theater, one that sets a high bar for the just-beginning 2022-2023 season.
God of Carnage runs through September 11, 2022, at the Gremlin Theatre, 550 Vandalia Street, Saint Paul MN. Tickets: $25.00 - 39.00. For tickets and information, please call 612-401-4506 or visit www.darkstormy.org.
Playwright: Yasmina Reza, translated by Christopher Hampton; Director: Ben McGovern; Scenic Design: Rick Polenek; Costume Design: Sara Marsh; Lighting Design: Mary Shabatura; Sound Design: Aaron Newman; SFX Makeup: Crist Ballas; Technical and Design Consultant: Michael James; Stage Manager: Ashley Roper; Producer: Sara Marsh
Cast: Peter Christian Hansen (Alan Raleigh), Sara Marsh (Annette Raleigh), Mo Perry (Veronica Novak), Luverne Seifert (Michael Novak).