For a play with such an apocalyptic title, the setting and stakes of God of Carnage are mundane: Two couples, the Raleighs and the Novaks, meet in the Cobble Hill apartment of the latter, to discuss a playground altercation between their sons. This summit starts with strained civility but devolves into an indulgent festival of expression. Aided (or impaired, I suppose) by what we’re told is a particularly good rum, the quartet careen from unctuous attempts at diplomacy to truculent outbursts and ad hominem attacks. But for all the conversational combativeness, there is little real carnage: the only casualties being a cell phone and a bouquet of tulips. (An out-of-print art book is injured, but expected to recover.)
If it sounds slight, it is. Yasmina Reza’s play brushes against some basic, broad philosophical questions—well, one, really: Is savagery man’s natural state?—in an environment so rarefied as to obviate the question. A lawyer and his wife sharing liquor and dessert with a successful home-furnishing entrepreneur and his armchair-activist/author wife—however pointed the put-downs—is the stuff of sitcoms.
Well, then, is God of Carnage funny?
Surprisingly, yes. Surprisingly, because the script itself is somewhat clunky. The stiffness of the dialog at the play’s beginning (though likely an intentional meta-suggestion of the artificiality of politesse) strained believability; and some of the plot contrivances (overheard phone conversations, for example) could easily have been total groaners. This play needs a lot from its small cast.
Fortunately, this cast brought it. As Michael and Veronica Novak, Ken Krugman and Brigitte Viellieu-Davis provide between them an amusing mix of ingratiation and earnest indignation. Veronica is the (perhaps overly constructed) conscience of the group, though her globally aware, do-gooder’s righteousness proves to be intermittent; Michael is a go-along-to-get-along type, easily (if not happily) directed by the women in his life. These are tough roles: Reza has written a couple whose civility is a kind of energetic camouflage. To act that veneer with the force the characters would supply, while laying the ground for the impending reveal, is a trick. Krugman and Viellieu-Davis pull it off almost without hitch. (Though, personally, I found Michael’s transition from eager nebbish to shirttails-out boor slightly rough.)
As Alan and Annette Raleigh, Michael McKenzie and Brenny Rabine are delightfully snide and brittle. Arguably, these are, at first, the easier roles, as the Raleighs are written to be less immediately likable (though maybe I’m revealing some class issues, here): Alan is a high-profile lawyer for, among other clients, a pharmaceutical company with a potential public-health scandal on its hands. Annette is a high-strung trophy wife. (See? Less likable, right?) McKenzie is enormously enjoyable as a character who is all too willing to embrace his own unscrupulous “savagery”; Rabine does a fine job of evoking a courtesy that seems cunning, and her own breakdown is a riot to watch.
Thanks to a cast of talented comedic actors, a short run time (just 90 minutes), and the brisk pace of Maggie Mancinelli-Cahill’s direction, this production of God of Carnage makes the most of the material. So, it’s not particularly deep—it’s not the end of the world.