One of my childhood friends in Duluth lived in a fancy house built into the side of a cliff; the living room was kept so pristine that children weren’t allowed to so much as set foot on its white carpet. We had a sixth-grade sleepover in the family’s den, which was carpeted in a deep shag. When I ate too many Oreos and found myself suddenly faced with the choice of throwing up on my sleeping bag or throwing up on the rug, I made the obvious choice.
Set designer Todd Rosenthal situates God of Carnage in a pristine white living room, and I was delighted to find that when nausea strikes, a visiting character makes the same choice I did. Unfortunately there’s not much else that gives delight in director John Miller-Stephany’s shallow production of Yasmina Reza’s pretentious 2009 play.
The one-scene, one-set, four-character play has married couple Alan (Bill McCallum) and Annette (Tracey Maloney) Raleigh paying a visit to another married couple, Michael (Chris Carlson) and Veronica (Jennifer Blagen) Novak, to discuss an incident of playground violence perpetrated by the Raleighs’ 11-year-old son upon the Novaks’. By the end of the play, the adults themselves are acting like children—and by “acting like children,” I mean actually throwing temper tantrums on the floor. It’s like a bourgeois Lord of the Flies, and in this case you wish they’d all get thrown off the cliff.
The obvious inspiration here is Edward Albee, but with masterpieces like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and A Delicate Balance, Albee applied pressure like a ratchet, building tension and raising the stakes with every acid line. Reza, on the other hand, starts at a similar point of relative social composure but tears the scenario apart like a kid destroying a tower of blocks—and with about as much subtlety. We see early on where the play is going, and then all that’s left is to watch it go there, garnering what enjoyment we can from the awkward pauses and occasionally amusing one-liners. It’s hard, though, to enjoy a play that keeps grabbing you by the shoulders and telling you how significant it is. There may be evil that lurks in the hearts of men, but all I see in these characters is the kind of showy buffoonery that lurks in the hearts of lazy playwrights.
The production has its virtues, but even they are few. The cast members work together well, and use patient comic timing to good effect in the wake of the script’s many moments of bad behavior. Miller-Stephany’s casting is unimaginative, the head-and-shoulders standout being the infallibly empathetic Maloney. When she was sitting there on the couch, leaning over a barf bin, and looking fed up and ill, I could certainly relate. Maloney’s peformance is nuanced and gratifyingly restrained; the other three actors pretty much just switch back and forth between apeshit mode and non-apeshit mode.
Albee’s characters use sex as a weapon, and the best productions of his work crackle with erotic tension. This is not a sexy script, and Miller-Stephany certainly doesn’t go out of his way to find any hints of action among these four: Smucker’s Stars on Ice has more erotic tension than God of Carnage.
I have to acknowledge that the show does seem to connect with what may be its intended audience: as someone who’s never been married, I was almost disturbed at how entertaining and engaging the largely middle-aged Thursday night crowd seemed to find the show. God (of carnage or otherwise) help me if my domestic life ever turns out like this. If it turned out like an Albee play, I’d also be unhappy—but at least I’d still have my wits about me.