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Theatre in Review: God of Carnage (Theatre Breaking Through Barriers/Theatre Row)

Carey Cox, Christiane Noll, David Burtka. Photo: Carol Rosegg

"It's just bile! It's nothing!" So says one of the characters in God of Carnage, having thrown up all over an expensive sofa and coffee table. She should talk: Yasmina Reza's bleak comedy is all bile, all the time. The playwright brings together two married couples for a summit meeting following a violent incident between their sons in Cobble Hill Park. Benjamin, son of Alan and Annette, has hit Henry, offspring of Michael and Veronica, damaging Henry's teeth. The plan is for the adults to work out a civilized agreement but, before the evening is over, chaos will ensue, informed by insults, vandalism, and, yes, plenty of bile.

It's obvious from the get-go that, despite everyone's protestations, the room is simmering and ready to blow. (Note how Christiane Noll, as Veronica, keeps clicking the pen in her hand while looking on in distaste.) The conversation is strained, and the casual revelation that Michael, no fan of rodents, has kidnapped his daughter's hamster, putting the poor animal on the street, does nothing to add a note of conviviality. Particularly unhelpful are the constant interruptions from Alan's law office, regarding a client, a pharmaceutical company trying to squirm out of liability for a drug with toxic side effects.

Then again, everyone in God of Carnage is allergic to liability. This becomes evident when the subject of a meeting between the boys is broached. ("Madam, our son is a savage," says Alan, dismissing the idea out of hand.) Tensions rise, marital discontents are aired, and the blame game slips into high gear. As is usually the case with Reza's plays, latent -- almost primordial -- conflicts lurk beneath the well-upholstered surface of bourgeois life. The playwright can be too obvious about it, carelessly leaving her agenda exposed, especially when sniping breaks out along Mars -- Venus lines, with the men asserting their right to get drunk and smoke cigars. And the play's attempts at drawing parallel lines between drawing room infighting and the atrocities committed in Darfur feel particularly glib.

And yet, under Nicholas Viselli's taut direction, the four-person cast provides plenty of schadenfreude-laced fun. David Burtka's Alan, barking questionable orders into his phone and complaining that everyone else is listening in, is a model of corporate bluster. As Annette, Carey Cox makes something inexplicably hilarious out of her dainty admission that she works in wealth management; she also pulls off a spectacular vomit effect. Gabe Fazio has the toughest assignment because Christopher Hampton's translation rings false in depicting Michael as a self-defined "neanderthal." (In America, real men don't say, "It's an extraordinary clafoutis." They don't even know what clafoutis is.) Nevertheless, Fazio is a consistently droll presence; I particularly enjoyed his delivery of the line, "Veronica's a writer and works part-time in an art history bookshop," adding a subtle emphasis on "and works" that earns him a spousal dirty look. Best of all is Noll as Veronica, armed with a full repertory of judgmental stares, sullen silences, and ulterior remarks; she can earn a laugh simply by exiting with a sour face of disapproval.

Because this is a production of Theatre Breaking Through Barriers, which is dedicated to advancing the cause of disabled theatre makers and audience members, Bert Scott's well-furnished set is dominated by a burgundy arrangement of panels on which Samuel J. Biondolillo delivers surtitles of the play's text. (For blind audience members, a cleverly written prologue provides extensive descriptions of each character.) Biondolillo is also responsible for the solid lighting design. Olivia V. Hern's costumes feel just right, down to the Batman T-shirt that Michael exposes when asserting his masculinity.

Never as profound as it pretends to be, God of Carnage admittedly wields its judgmental sense of humor with a certain authority. A five-finger exercise of a play, it can provide an amusingly malicious workout for the right cast. Here, Viselli's actors make the characters awfully perfect examples of perfectly awful people. --David Barbour

(28 April 2023)

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