At the start of God of Carnage, four people are sitting in a beautifully appointed living room. The decor (courtesy of Jonathan Scott-McKean) has orange and turquoise notes but is never garish; there’s a vase of flame-colored tulips on the coffee table, which also holds a stack of expensive art books, including — we learn later — an out-of-print Kokoschka catalogue. Alan and Annette Raleigh have come to the home of Michael and Veronica Novak to discuss a schoolyard fight: The Raleighs’ son, Benjamin, hit the Novaks’ son, Henry, with a stick when Henry refused to allow Benjamin to join his gang, knocking out two of the boy’s teeth. The injury was a little more serious than you might think at first; there was nerve injury. Still, everyone is determined to deal with the event in a low-key, civilized manner. These are upper-class people, after all, and very wealthy.
You know what has to happen next: The oh-so-civilized dialogue will spiral into insults, chaos, rage and childish name-calling — and, yes, all that does happen, with the complete breakdown of civilization in this elegant room symbolized by the unexpected spew of vomit landing on the precious Kokoschka. So much for liberal, cultured Veronica’s love of art and her concern for suffering in Africa. So much for the delicious pear-and-apple clafoutis she served.
You may know what’s coming, but not exactly how or why. I originally thought an argument would break out as each set of parents fiercely defended their young, but no one seems particularly concerned about these little boys; they’re more interested in jockeying for a winning position.
Another possibility: Throughout the evening, Alan breaks away from the discussion to talk on his cell phone about a topic clearly more important to him than his family. His law firm is handling the defense of a drug called Antril that may be dangerous and is produced by a pharmaceutical client. On the phone he sounds hilariously like the teams of media hacks working on damage control for the presidential candidates. “If necessary, attack the newspapers,” he says. When we find out Antril has been prescribed for Michael’s mother, we expect some moralistic bullets to fly. But Michael seems to care about his mother about as much as he does his son. Or, for that matter, his little daughter, whose beloved hamster he released onto the streets of New York — though he does explain that he thought the hamster would be as happy there as all the other city rodents.
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Playwright Yasmin Reza is often praised for revealing the hypocrisy and vacuity at the heart of upper-middle-class life, but that’s not really much of a revelation. The characters and their motivations in God of Carnage don’t make a lot of sense. It’s hard to believe that a pleasant, laid-back husband would morph into a chest-thumping Neanderthal within moments, as Michael does, or that a polished wealth-management specialist like Annette would turn into a briefcase-wielding fury. Alan, a cynical bastard who believes in “the god of carnage who has ruled the world uninterruptedly since the dawn of time,” is true to himself throughout, but it’s a one-dimensional self. And poor Veronica’s humanity is rapidly lost in the general melee. The acting in this Miners Alley production is so terrific, however, that you don’t notice. Lisa DeCaro is a quivering wreck as Veronica, and you have to see Mark Collins’s inspired and uninhibited transformation as Michael to believe it. Augustus Truhn’s Alan provides a steady, quiet ground zero of pure loathesomeness. And Emily Paton Davies is ridiculously and wonderfully convincing as Annette.
So, ultimately, who cares if there’s a moral vacuum at the center of this play? God of Carnage is ferociously clever and — under Len Matheo’s direction — so funny you end up hiccuping with laughter time and time again. And I love the way the script upends expectation: The women come together at one point, and just as you think you’re about to witness some sisterly solidarity, they’re back to bashing away at each other. The same goes for the men. The husbands and wives clearly despise each other. There are no alliances; there’s no moment of empathy or understanding — just the anarchic joy of watching adults behaving like demented two-year-olds, and in the process (and perhaps this does introduce one small note of genuine despair) discovering just how bitterly alone each and every one of them is.
God of Carnage, presented by Miners Alley Playhouse through October 16, 1224 Washington Avenue, Golden, 303-935-3044, minersalley.com.