July 6, 2016

God of Carnage: Civilization Gives Way to Savagery in “God of Carnage,” Yasmina Reza’s Black Comedy at Princeton Summer Theater

Theater rev 7-6-16

VENEER OF CIVILITY: Two sets of parents come together for a rational, civilized discussion of a playground dispute that has taken place between their sons, in Princeton Summer Theater’s production of Yasmina Reza’s black comedy “God of Carnage.” (L to R) Maddie Meyers as Annette, Billy Cohen as Alan, Olivia Nice as Veronica, and Jake McCready as Michael. (Photo by Ogemdi Ude)

The setting is a fashionable living room in the Cobble Hill section of Brooklyn. The leather furniture is spare and tasteful. A large vase of tulips graces the elegant coffee table, which is covered with art books. An expensive-looking painting fills the back wall.

Two sets of well-educated upper middle class parents are discussing a playground dispute that has taken place between their 11-year-old sons. “Fortunately, there is still such a thing as the art of co-existence, isn’t there?” says Veronica, whose son has lost two teeth in the incident.

Reason, mutual understanding, graciousness, and civility prevail — for less than a minute — in Yasmina Reza’s God of Carnage, 2009 Tony Award winner for Best Play, currently at Princeton Summer Theater. Translated from its original French by Christopher Hampton, the play, a mix of psychological realism, brutal philosophical speculation, and broad comedy, is about human behavior at its worst.

In its sharp reds and blacks, the crimson Rothko-esque art work on the back wall and the surrounding dark recesses of the stage, the ingenious set design by Jeffrey Van Velsor, with subtle, expressive lighting by Alex Mannix, captures the essence of this harsh event. The violence to come — both psychological and physical, lurking just below the subdued elegance and smiling facades — is deftly foreshadowed in the setting.

After the niceties give way to anger and resentment and the gloves come off, the human spectacle that follows during the 90-minute duration of the play, derives much of its entertainment value from schadenfreude — sure feels good not to be as terrible and miserable a parent, spouse, human being as these characters are — along with the universal, primitive appeal of watching carnage in action, whether it’s a prize fight, a bull fight, a car accident, or, as in this case, a nasty social occasion.

Under the direction of Annika Bennett, who has been writing and working on plays as an intern at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago since her 2015 graduation from Princeton University, the four experienced young cast members embrace Ms. Reza’s characters with energy and focus. As emotions erupt, allegiances shift and attacks proliferate, psychological depth and verisimilitude yield to over-the-top spectacle and farce, but the representation of the human animal is shockingly accurate. Ms. Reza, also a Tony winner for Art in 1998, knows her craft, and the PST Company meets the challenges, including character age stretches of about 15 years, to create four credible, committed individuals and their contentious relationships.

That the offspring of these four would have resorted to violence is hardly surprising. Billy Cohen’s Alan, an ill-mannered corporate lawyer constantly interrupting the conversation to carry on his cell phone quarrels over a pharmaceutical case, makes only minimal pretenses of civility before revealing his claws. Invoking his belief “in the god of carnage” who “has ruled uninterruptedly, since the dawn of time,” Alan is less than eager for polite, rational conversation. “When you’re brought up with a kind of John Wayne-ish idea of virility,” he declaims, “you don’t want to settle this kind of problem with a lot of yakking.”

A recent Princeton graduate, experienced performer in Triangle Shows and various summer theaters, Mr. Cohen plays the part with confidence, successfully juggling the intermittent cell phone dialogue with his belligerent exchanges with his three colleagues.

Maddie Meyers, rising Princeton senior, plays Alan’s wife, a carefully polished “wealth manager,” seemingly much more accommodating than her husband — but the veneer here is thin, and the understanding smiles quickly turn to distress and anger.

As the parents of the injured boy, Jake McCready’s Michael, a wholesale supplier, and Olivia Nice’s Veronica, a writer working on a book about Darfur, appear more down to earth, liberal and open-minded than their counterparts. Veronica, “standing up for civilization,” invokes “the principles of Western society. What goes on in Cobble Hill Park reflects the values of Western society! Of which, if it’s all the same to you, I am happy to be a member.”

But violent actions and hostile emotions soon reveal themselves and overturn her efforts to maintain a self-righteous, humane demeanor. Less than an hour into the proceedings, her husband follows suit in casting off the liberal façade. Mr. McCready, a New York-based actor and director, third year MFA student at The New School for Drama, creates a fascinating character as he plunges into outbursts of verbal and physical emotionality and violence.

”I’m up to here with the idiotic discussions,” he says, as the four angry parents descend into ever greater depths of coarseness and ire. “We tried to be nice, we bought tulips, my wife passed me off as a liberal, but I can’t keep this bullshit up any more. I am not a member of polite society. What I am and always have been, is a f—- Neanderthal.”

Ms. Nice, 2014 Princeton graduate, now working in New York Theater with a number of stage, film, and TV credits, plays the conflicted, complex role of Veronica with conviction and credibility. Veronica, the character apparently most invested in holding on to the qualities of humanity and civilized behavior, becomes the poignant focus of the proceedings towards the end of the play.

Ms. Bennett has directed this excellent cast with skill and insight, to reveal vividly both the bright surfaces and the ugly underlying realities. The action moves swiftly towards its hostile, irreconcilable conclusions, reminiscent of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962), though lacking the weight and emotional power of Edward Albee’s tragi-comic masterpiece.

God of Carnage ran for more than a year on Broadway in 2009-10, and has been performed widely throughout the world over the past six years. It was adapted in 2011 into a film, Carnage, directed by Roman Polanski and starring Jodie Foster and Kate Winslet.

In the play’s opening moments the parents, who are attempting to agree on a written description of the conflict between their sons, argue over whether young Benjamin, before striking Henry, was “armed with a stick” or simply “furnished with a stick.” Language will be inadequate here in helping these four maintain the pretensions of polite, rational behavior. Following this failure of language, the audience watches with a mix of horror, amusement, and nasty delight, along with perhaps the shock of identification and self-recognition, as the trappings of civilization rapidly peel away.

“God of Carnage” will play on July 7-10, with shows at 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and 2 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday, at the Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus. Call (732) 997-0205 or visit princetonsummertheater.org/tickets for tickets and information.