Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley

God of Carnage
City Lights Theater Company
Review by Eddie Reynolds

Also see Eddie's review of The Legend of Georgia McBride

Avondina Wills, Karyn Rondeau,
Erik Gandolfi, and April Green

Photo by Taylor Sanders
Even before anyone appears in the stylish Brooklyn apartment scenically designed by Ron Gasparinetti and packed with well-placed, stacked books by properties designer Ting Na Wang, the threatening war drums and music from some distant jungle (part of George Psarras' music/sound design) and the red light that menacingly envelopes below and around the stage (Mary Baronitis, designer) warn us that the chit-chat full of nervous smiles we soon witness is going to be short lived. Anyone who has already seen Yasmina Reza's much-produced around the world God of Carnage or the subsequent Roman Polanski movie Carnage is already chuckling while also cringing in anticipation of what is coming. First-timers unfortunately do not know to strap themselves tight for a rollercoaster ride that will be incredibly wild and wooly.

We soon learn that director Virginia Drake has pulled no punches in ensuring that this uproariously funny and furiously outrageous City Lights Theater Company production of God of Carnage will both delight and shock its audience with a terrific take on this dark drama/comedy about modern-day parenting.

The Raleighs and the Novaks have never met, even though their eleven-year-old sons, Benjamin and Henry, are in the same class. Alan and Annette Raleigh are dropping by Veronica and Michael Novak's apartment this afternoon in order to discuss diplomatically the incident of Benjamin hitting Henry with a stick on the playground. In between admiring the beautiful tulips, the Raleighs suggest that a write-up of the altercation by the Novaks is a bit harsh when Veronica and Michael say that Benjamin was "armed with a stick," to which the Novaks quickly agree to substitute "furnished with a stick."

Even though Henry has lost two teeth, the couples agree that "nothing is gained being stuck in an emotional cul-de-sac" as they proceed to discuss how the boys should resolve the situation and how they as parents should be involved. Treaty negotiations between long-warring nations have probably been easier than what ensues between these parents who have no intention of just allowing the two boys to resolve on their own their own dispute. Yasmina Reza has taken the current term "helicopter parents" and has rendered two sets of busybodies who soon become "fighter-jet" parents.

Weapons become many as the afternoon's skirmishes intensify, fueled first by Veronica's prize clafoutis dessert and then by two bottles of Michael's equally prized ten-year rum. Words full of accusations, stereotypes and insults are pointed and harmful enough; but they pale in comparison to flying tulips, a purse full of personals, a hair dryer turned on high, and worse. And then there is Nibbles the hamster who becomes a central figure of contention in the ever-mounting conflicts.

Besides the wonderful mix of tactics employed by director Drake during this hour, twenty minute conflagration—including deliciously hilarious and effective uses of sudden and complete silences—this cast of four takes advantage of every word written by the playwright as well as the guidance of the director to score big time hits as each has a moment (or actually many moments) to reign supreme. Side conversations marked by philosophizing on world events, reminiscing about childhoods, or talking about art and business are at first intermingled and then later overridden by bouts of laughing deliriously with edged-cynicism, yelling in a combined chorus louder than a street full of angry protestors, or crying tears of crocodile size either alone or in a wailing duet. As the wars continue, sides of allies continually shift, and battlegrounds are drawn at times not just one couple versus the other, but one sex against another, wives versus husbands, or three against one. In other words, battles flair seemingly at the drop of a word, the scowl of a look, or the accidental bump of an arm; the last minute's friend is this minute's sworn and forever enemy.

And all we can do as an audience is laugh aloud with eyes wide open to yet another atrocious occurrence in an apartment that begins to look like the bloodied field of Armageddon.

As Alan Raleigh, Erik Gandolfi arrives suited and in the tie of a high-powered New York lawyer. He soon takes the first of many cell-phone calls as he advises his big-pharm client about the current accusation that the company has not advised the public about dangerous side effects of one of its drugs. ("Goddamn inconvenient," Alan admits.) As he barks increasingly louder and with more four-letter words into the cell (while pacing the entire apartment), the other three at first look stunned, then embarrassed, and increasingly irritated. But Mr. Gandolfi's Alan never understands, much less cares about, his effect, eagerly jumping back into the fray after each call as if nothing has happened.

In fact, he is more than ready to declare his own son a "savage" and then equally eager to go to war to defend the boy's reactions like those he remembers on the playgrounds of his own childhood. Along the way, his treasured cell becomes yet one more bullet for the opposing side. When the phone becomes a central weapon of revenge, his Alan withers in a masterful portrayal of the high-and-mighty suddenly defeated—for a few minutes, that is.

Openly scowling about the ringing interruptions but at first remaining silent is Alan's wife Annette. April Green allows her character to emerge like the peeling of an onion, with each layer becoming more and more expressive, assertive, and finally downright aggressive. Along the way, she unexpectedly suffers from something she previously ate or drank. Ms. Green's graphic, pained portrayal of her sudden infirmity actually made my own stomach have more than a few, uneasy twitches.

That his son Henry has a gang and that he did not allow Benjamin to join it (probably the main reason for the stick incident) actually does not bother Michael that much. In fact, he finds something that he and Alan can have a few, good-ol'-boy minutes reveling in their stories of "beating the shit" out of other kids when growing up. Avondina Wills is all smiles as he does all he can to extend olive branches in the beginning of the afternoon's têté-á-têté (trying to ignore or make light of his wife's more fiery statements of fault and needed retribution). But add enough rum and his Michael transforms from Jekyll into Hyde, calling his son a "nine-year-old snot nose" and declaring, "Children consume our live and then destroy them." When his wife at one point asks, "Why are you choosing to show yourself in this horrible light," Mr. Green's Michael defiantly, triumphantly responds, "Because I feel like it." His sense of newly found freedom from societal (and spousal) expectations is written all over Michael's proudly positioned body.

As wonderful as the other three portrayals are, Karyn Rondeau is particularly noteworthy as her Veronica Novak becomes a force not to be reckoned with lightly. Ms. Rondeau employs a myriad of tactics to convey a woman who has passions for causes overflowing from her entire being—whether for the genocide of Darfur (the subject of her next book) or for her son's "disfigurement." While she too begins with sympathetic smiles and small talk about recipes and flowers, Veronica becomes a powerhouse of convictions that erupt in ways that seem to surprise even her. And when this seemingly nice, do-good-for-the-world person finally blurts in a screaming tenor, "I don't have a sense of humor, and I don't expect to get one," we know that Mt. Vesuvius is about to blow its top and that head of long, curly hair is going to fling in directions and manners that cause audience members almost to duck.

The singular quibble I have with the performance I attended is that more than just a few times lines were stumbled over and/or cues missed momentarily, especially by one of the actors. These occurred in the first third of the evening and then seemed to disappear totally. Perhaps all the anticipation of the night's fights and forays caused some misfires.

Certainly, however, the damage is only slight and quickly passing. The overall result of the evening is that this director, creative team, and cast have mounted a God of Carnage full of a punch that grabs us, holds our attention firmly, and hardly lets us catch our breaths between gasps of "oh my God" and rounds of laughter.

God of Carnage, through October 14, 2018, at City Lights Theater Company, 529 South Second Street, San Jose CA. Tickets are available online at or by calling 408-295-4200 Monday - Friday, 1-5 p.m.