Common to her style is a brief (around 90 minutes) focused look at one thing or event. For example, in Art, it is the painting; in Life x 3, there is a mix-up about the date of the dinner party; in God of Carnage, the characters’ meeting is generated by a playground incident in which one couple’s son smacked the other in the face with a stick and knocked out two of his teeth. What is most remarkable about how quickly we recognize them is that they are created French, then gracefully translated into British and American English by Christopher Hampton.
In recent seasons, the Rep has produced all three of the abovementioned shows on the mainstage or in the studio (Life x 3). Of “Carnage,” director Ed Stern notes: “While the ending may be clear, the path to get there is infinitely complex. Relationships/alliances are formed, pulled down and reformed.” What I find most interesting about these rather unlikable people is how each of them, at one time or another, seems “right.” The situation itself is absurd, so the characters are going to be judged in that context, but once we’ve accepted that, we dive into the ensuing melee which begins as a civilized conference among parents.
It seems that Veronica Novak (Eva Kaminsky) and her husband, Michael (Triney Sandoval) have asked Alan Raleigh (Anthony Marble) and his wife, Annette, (Susan Louise O’Connor) to come to their home to discuss their sons’ altercation. The first scene begins as Veronica is reading an agreement she has written to clarify the situation, and she wants the stick-wielding Benjamin to apologize to her injured Henry. After some discussion about the wording of the document (was Benjamin Raleigh “armed” or “furnished” with a stick?) the talks begin. Or at least Veronica and Annette talk. Alan seems like he’s almost asleep until his cell phone rings, then he comes to life as a lawyer representing a pharmaceutical company who has played fast and loose with warnings about the side effects of a blood pressure medication. At this point, Michael, a self-made wholesaler, is cast in the role of good-natured doofus who sees his job as accommodation.
Annette is in “wealth management” (though that may refer to her managing her husband’s assets) and is dressed accordingly—black suit and heels. Alan wears dark blue, and he, too, is still in his work clothes. The Novaks are much more casual, but they are clad in neutral shades of gray. Gordon DeVinney designed the costumes. The elegant living room is also furnished in black and gray and even the coffee cups and dishes match the color scheme. (Narelle Sissons designed the set and Kirk Bookman and Steve O’Shea lighted it.) Behind it all, however, sits a high stone wall, an appropriate image for what is to come. The coffee table is stacked with art books (a prop for a later gross but funny scene). These are beloved totems to Veronica who works part time in a museum. She is also an activist of sorts who has a book on Darfur soon to be published. Hampton’s translation relocates the play from Paris to Brooklyn, and it’s hard to think of it taking place anywhere else but in such a gentrified liberal yuppie enclave as that once-depressed area has become.
So, would it occur to you to call a meeting because a couple of 11-year-old boys got in a fight? Actually, it might. Most helicopter parents today could well go straight to the principal (or, ironically, the lawyer) but Veronica believes that peaceful negotiations are more desirable. As the evening wears on though, each character is stripped of his or her defenses, and their behavior begins to make their children’s actions look mature by comparison. Watching them all break down is very funny, but it is also emblematic of the vast differences between our inner selves and our social veneers. The director heads off one potential negative criticism by acknowledging that some London and New York reviewers saw the play as more “sitcom than substance,” and I think those reviewers do have a point, but the play doesn’t allow itself to be that easily pigeonholed.
All four of these actors are terrific, but O’Connor stands out. Partly, it is because she has the longest journey from the couturier back to the cave, and also because her timing and delivery are intrinsically hilarious. She reminds me of a young Dianne Wiest with her little girl voice in which a touch of steel is always in the back of the throat. She seems delicate, but she is far from that. However, this really is an ensemble, and Kaminsky’s smug dabbler in causes, Marble’s restrained legal demeanor that devolves into a revelation of how unevolved he really is, and Sandoval’s good guy turned caged animal are amazing, as well.
When the gloves come off, we find that the phone-tethered Alan believes in the law of the jungle and the “god of carnage.” Michael feels unmanned by his domineering wife and mother, who calls nearly as often as Alan’s client, but later she is key to the plot. Annette’s sweet, demure aspect hides a fury that comes out both literally and figuratively. Veronica’s public personality is probably the closest to her primal one, but when she blows, she really blows. Stern has directed them to a fare-thee-well, as they talk to, over and around each other and engage in loads of physical comedy.
In the end, we are all of them and none of them, in certain ways, and as their journey winds down, we are almost as exhausted and just as confused as they are, but presumably, less drunk. Because if in wine there is truth, in rum, there are monsters. The end tableau speaks volumes about our interactions with each other and our ultimate isolation. One of the fathers notes, “Children consume our lives, then destroy them.” We have to evaluate his conclusion for ourselves, however, because if you don’t leave this play thinking, as well as laughing, then you may have missed the point.
God of Carnage runs at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis through Nov. 6. You may visit www.repstl.org. Andrea Braun also reviews for KDHX 88.1 St. Louis
BY: ANDREA BRAUN – THEATRE CORRESPONDENT