God Of Carnage at the Guthrie Theater

June 3, 2011
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Chris Carlson, Bill McCallum, Tracey Maloney and Jennifer Blagen in God Of Carnage. Photo by Paul Kolnik.

New York is a marvelous city: compact, gorgeously slummy, ethnicities swirling together, SROs right next to upper income high-rises.  The City (New Yorkers never bother with the actual name) is filled with weird clubs, outstanding eateries, architectural gems, astounding street theater everywhere you look.  Funky and a touch dangerous to be sure, but this only adds to the spice.  For those who can get into it, NYC is paradise.

And those who can’t get into it?  Well, they reside in urban fortresses, doorman-guarded enclaves in Central Park East, West End Avenue or, like the characters in Yasmina Reza‘s savagely funny God Of Carnage (at the Guthrie, though Aug 7), Cobble Hill, Brooklyn.  They struggle, not always successfully, to keep the City and its insanity at bay.

Reza’s set-up is simplicity itself: the Novaks (Veronica and Michael) have invited the Raleighs (Annette and Alan) to their sterile apartment to eat clafoutis (Veronica has taken care to slice the fruit just so) and discuss an untoward playground incident between their sons.  It’s normal boy-roughhousing, easily taken care of with a phone call and an apology.  But for the tightly wound Raleighs and the Novaks the discussion becomes the start of a horrorshow, shrill (and unbelievably funny) “carnage”.

It starts when Veronica casually mentions that the previous night her darling husband Michael took the noisy nocturnal hamster and let it go in the street.  Thus begins a spiral of revelation and anger for Michael (a self-described “Neanderthal”).  It’s catchy.  Annette Raleigh picks up on it, followed quickly by Veronica Novak, then the cell-phone addicted Alan.  They go for each other’s jugular: “Every word that comes out of your mouth destroys me!”

My lovely seat-mate insists that I not reveal Annette’s response to this madness.  So I won’t.  However, I will say that Annette comes up with what is, for me, a theatrical first, and when Michael breaks out the high end rum, the play takes on a truly frightening spin.  That these people are so well groomed, so contained, so perfectly upper class makes their shrieking deterioration lusciously comic.  Ms. Reza’s feel for these sweetly nasty characters (it helps that she is French) is flawless.

As Michael, Chris Carlson displays impeccable comic timing.  His combination of hulking physicality (he towers over the other actors) and self-deprecating shrillness makes him mesmerizing.  The always delicious Tracey Maloney‘s specialty is mousey shyness barely disguising a maelstrom of passion, and she puts this talent to excellent use here, going from neurotic shyness to flower hurling abandon with nary a sour note.  Jennifer Blagen delights as the hostess, keeping her art books beautifully arranged, working on a piece about Darfur (!), smiling malevolence underlying every honeyed word.  And Bill McCallum excels as the patent attorney, giving perfect phone even as he goes insane.  Thrilling work by all.

John Miller-Stephany directs with a sure hand.  This means that he stays out of the cast’s way.  It also means that he has hired a crack team of designers; in particular, Todd Rosenthal‘s set is perfectly (and theatrically) sterile.

At the end of this ninety minute free-for-all, the characters, the playwright, and the audience are spent.  “What do we know…?” someone asks, panting.  Indeed.  God Of Carnage is a long day’s journey into… well, perhaps not that much.  But it is, thanks to the smart writing, a hoot and then some, and the Guthrie cast makes the trip well worth taking.

Recommended.

For more information about John Olive, please visit his website.

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