Everything that happens in God of Carnage is expected...and not
Dee Covington and Karen Slack in God of Carnage.
Let's start with the setting, so pristine, white, minimal and tasteful: chairs with gracefully curving legs, a glass table on which art books are meticulously arranged, a vase of white tulips, nicely grouped with just one flower swaying slightly out to the side. Tall panels of white brick form a background, alternating with looming black spaces. Even if you didn't know the play's title — God of Carnage — you'd know what's about to hit this room: mayhem, fury, disintegration and chaos. And believe me, the evening doesn't disappoint.
At first, all four of the characters we encounter appear as put together and self-assured as the decor. We're in the home of Veronica and Michael Novak. He's a businessman specializing in household goods, she's an art-loving do-gooder currently at work on a book about Darfur. Their visitors are the Raleighs: Alan, a sharklike lawyer, and his wife, Annette, a wealth-management specialist in a sharply well-defined suit. The couples' eleven-year-old sons got into a fight on the playground when Henry Novak refused to let Benjamin Raleigh join his gang — whereupon Benjamin hit Henry with a stick, knocking out two of his teeth. Now the four parents have come together as civilized New Yorkers to talk about the altercation and agree on a course of action.
Things are amicable for a while, though every now and then a pointed sideways comment pierces the pleasantries. Veronica talks art and serves clafouti, made — as she's at pains to point out — with both pears and apples. Alan leaps up and down, in thrall to the insistent ringing of his cell phone. Annette is reserved, almost puzzled, reasonable-seeming, and Michael pleasantly avuncular. But once the veneer starts to slip, it slips more crazily than you could ever have imagined.
You think rage will erupt because the parents are protective of their children, but, in fact, no one expresses a shred of interest in those boys. You think the issue is going to be Alan's work: He represents a pharmaceutical company that deliberately hid information about the dangers posed by one of its drugs — a drug that it turns out Michael's mother is taking. Or perhaps someone will threaten to sue. You think cracks will appear in the marriages or the men will gang up on the women or the women on the men. And indeed, almost all of this happens. But never in the way you expect.
Which is why this production is so damn funny, sending you into spurts of surprised laughter again and again. There's not really a lot of emotional or thematic depth here. Playwright Yasmin Reza doesn't seem concerned about the horrors of pharmaceutical malpractice or mass murder in Africa. She doesn't side with one character over another, or show anyone's human side. She just throws the force of her ferocious, unforgiving intelligence onto the stage and lets us watch what happens. You could compare God of Carnage to Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, except that Who's Afraid is actually about something — memory, yearning, disappointment — and, horrifying as the relationship between George and Martha may be, it is a recognizable relationship. But there's nothing at all between Veronica and Michael or Alan and Annette. Their rages don't make sense. Their spats are as meaningless as their sons' playground fight. Maybe God of Carnage wants to say something about man's ultimate aloneness and ferocity, but it doesn't. The people you're watching are so outrageous, so disengaged from both one another and their own deepest impulses that they're like human bumper cars thumping around a track.
The actors give the hilarity their all. Erik Sandvold provides a nice solidity as Michael until he goes completely off into anarchic, little-boy spasms. Timothy McCracken's Alan is wonderfully loathsome and cold-blooded. Dee Covington makes Veronica the most human of the foursome — which isn't very human — though she feels a little ungrounded as the character's madness starts to soar. As for Karen Slack's riveting Annette: You could spend the entire evening watching the march of one illogical thought after another across her face. And while you can't begin to fathom why this woman does the stuff she does, you'd be happy to observe the demented precision with which she does it forever.
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