The wickedly acerbic domestic satire “God of Carnage” is only 80 minutes long, and the two married couples at the center of the play are at one another’s throats for about 70 of those minutes. But what are they really fighting about, and why? Do they even know?
The intellectual volleying that goes on in Yasmina Reza’s Tony Award-winning play, running at the Modern Theater Coeur d’Alene, is enough to make your head spin. It’s only at the end, after tears have been shed, vomit has been cleaned up and decorum has gone right out the window, that we realize all this fighting has gotten the characters absolutely nowhere.
It’s set in the New York apartment of the Novaks, Michael (Eric Paine) and Veronica (Phoebe Oosterhuis), whose son has been injured in an altercation at school. They’ve invited over the Raleighs, Alan (Daniel McKeever) and Annette (Emily Jones), whose son hit the Novaks’ boy in the face with a stick. They plan to spend the afternoon sipping espresso and collaborating on a statement detailing the incident.
The tension buried right beneath the surface first reveals itself when the Raleighs bristle at certain verbiage in the statement – their son was “armed,” his “victim” is now “deformed,” he did it all “on purpose.” The Novaks are willing to compromise, even though they consider the Raleighs’ boy a “savage.” Annette and Alan, on the other hand, assert that their son was defending himself: After all, the Novaks’ son called him a “snitch,” and a verbal insult is just another form of assault.
It escalates. Michael and Veronica look on in horror as Alan, an attorney for a pharmaceutical company, keeps getting work calls and answering them loudly. Alan, meanwhile, can barely hide his contempt as Michael crows about his specialty hardware business, and he later scoffs at Veronica, who fancies herself a humanitarian simply because she’s writing a book about “the Darfur tragedy.”
Espresso soon gives way to rum, and passive-aggressive digs develop into full-blown screaming matches. The characters take turns projecting their own insecurities onto one another, engaging in verbal emasculation, snap judgments, territoriality and blunt confrontation.
The Modern’s production, directed by Heather McHenry-Kroetch, is almost sickeningly entertaining, even during moments when you want to cower from these characters. The actors never get a break (there’s no intermission), and they seem almost trapped in their setting. This is the kind of play that only works if the actors really sink their teeth into the material, and McHenry-Kroetch’s cast tears it apart with aplomb. It’s a difficult piece, bounding from broad physical gags to introspection, and they pull it off.
“God of Carnage” is challenging, and not simply because the emotions are often pitched at a hysterical volume and the dialogue is riddled with four-letter words. Reza never really makes the characters’ motives (or even their personal ideologies) clear, perhaps because they’re not quite sure themselves. The only thing differentiating these squabbling grown-ups from children is their occasional attempts at forced civility.
Regardless of how you watch “God of Carnage” – for the Schadenfreude, for the character work, for the issues of class, gender and virtue it raises – you’ll have a hard time looking away.
If you made it to a presentation of God of Carnage, you saw James’ work onstage. He was kind enough to loan the pieces to us for the run of the show.