God of Carnage
Pittsburgh Public Theater

Susan Angelo and Deirdre Madigan;
Ted Koch in background

Yasmina Reza's God of Carnage offers audiences a view of two couples meeting to address a problem in a civilized way. By play's end, "civilized" is the last word you would use.

Alan and Annette Raleigh have arrived at the apartment of Michael and Veronica Novak, at Veronica's request, to discuss the aftermath of an altercation between the couples' 11-year-old sons. It seems the Raleigh's son Benjamin has taken a stick to the mouth of the Novak's young Henry. Details of the fight are eventually revealed, along with an unraveling of the composure of each parent. Anyone who has witnessed parenting habits in contemporary upper-middle-class families will recognize the contradiction of those who claim to want to only do the fair thing, yet cannot bear for any blame to be placed upon the head of their young darling. But Reza goes beyond the examples of some of the worst traits of 21st century parents—these two couples have other issues, marital and otherwise, lurking so close to the surface, that the first beads of sweat bring forth eruptions that are difficult to control. This farcical edge is where God of Carnage excels—it goes one step beyond real life. And Christopher Hampton's English translation of the French text ensures that the reaction is in laughs ("Children consume our lives and then destroy them"), and not shock.

To carry out this carefully orchestrated simmering chaos, director Ted Pappas has assembled a talented and game cast. As the Raleighs, Susan Angelo and David Whalen represent the corporate world: he's a lawyer glued to his cell phone who sees playground fights as a right of passage; she a "wealth manager" who wants everyone to resist confrontation. They are dressed in perfectly fitting suits. The Novaks, played by Deirdre Madigan and Ted Koch, are attired more casually (bonus points to Pappas, who also provides costuming; Angelo's suit is perfection); she (in bulky sweater and batik-style print skirt) is "steeped in Africa," writing a book on Darfur, and he (in plaid shirt and khakis, naturally) is a wholesaler of household goods, including toilet fixtures. They all seem to be good at what they do, but when it comes to solving the boys' conflict, reason is beyond the grasp of all.

After having seen Marcia Gay Harden as Veronica Novak on Broadway, I admit I was a bit curious about the casting of Deirdre Madigan in the role, but she is the real stand-out here. The way her lips curl into a smile while her eyes shoot daggers is brilliant, and her delivery of the script's choicest barbs is perfectly on point. The others are more than fine, but Madigan mines more from what she's given and adds yet another stellar accomplishment to her many witnessed by Pittsburgh audiences.

Fans of Reza's Art (presented just last year at the Public) may find themselves expecting some kind of resolution of all of this turmoil, a point to all of the verbal sparring. But God of Carnage fails us. The ending of the play is abrupt, disappointing and even confusing. After laughing for a good part of 75 minutes at the Novaks vs. the Raleighs, parents vs. children and men vs. women, it's quite a damper for the audience to be left wondering what just happened.

Anne Mundell's set of the Novak's trendy apartment is well done, although the symbolism of the back wall with its large crack exposure burning embers lacks subtlety. Zach Moore's sound design gives us the better metaphor of a jungle drumbeat. Pappas keeps things moving well, and the destruction of the apartment is well orchestrated—and well contained on the intimate thrust stage.

God of Carnage is a light and hilarious romp, a display of what happens when adults try to solve childrens' problems and end up acting more like children themselves.

Through June 26 at the O'Reilly Theater. For performance and ticket information, call 412-316-1600 or visit www.ppt.org.

Photo: Pittsburgh Public Theater

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