‘God of Carnage’ thoroughly engaging but leaves basic question

The Kansas City Star

There’s nothing novel about dramatic entertainment that argues that we’re all savages underneath our gossamer-thin façades of civilized behavior. But playwright Yasmina Reza toys with it in unpredictable ways in her short, volatile “God of Carnage.”

Brian Paulette, Melinda McCrary, Cinnamon Schultz and John Rensenhouse in "God of Carnage" (Unicorn/KCAT)

Reza is French and she and her English translator Christopher Hampton chose to shift the action from Paris to Brooklyn for its Broadway production, and that’s the version onstage at the Unicorn Theatre.

This smartly acted show, a co-production from the Unicorn and Kansas City Actors Theatre, is caustic, funny, occasionally disturbing and ultimately not very realistic – not that it’s supposed to be. The stage directions explicitly call for “no realism” in the set, which this production doesn’t necessarily follow. Even so, scenic designer Jordan Jonata’s set – and upscale living room tastefully appointed with modern paintings, African masks and art books — is a nice piece of work and serves the action extremely well.

And director Mark Robbins has chosen to open the performance with a creative bit of staging that is anything but naturalistic. He brings together a formidable cast. Cinnamon Schultz and Brian Paulette play the Novaks, who have invited the Raleighs, played by John Rensenhouse and Melinda McCrary, to their home to discuss an unfortunate playground incident involving their sons. One kid has hit the other in the mouth with a stick, and Veronica Novak thinks it important to write a statement describing the incident in neutral language on which all can agree. She also thinks it important for the two kids to meet and work out their differences.

The façade of civility begins to deteriorate rather rapidly once Alan Raleigh, a lawyer representing a huge pharmaceutical company, begins taking a succession of calls on his smart phone involving a potentially dangerous drug that could lead to lawsuits. He becomes increasingly manic with each call and the precarious polite facades begin dissipating, even as Annette Raleigh, who works in “wealth management,” barely controls her loathing for her husband’s cell phone addiction. Veronica, a textbook liberal writing a book about the crisis in Darfur, becomes increasingly frustrated, while her husband, Michael, who runs a plumbing hardware store, seems unable to follow what apparently was meant to be a unified front.

As the evening unravels, alliances are formed and abandoned in the blink of an eye. Initially it’s simply the Novaks vs. the Raleighs. But at different points the women seem unified against the men while the men share sympatico moments. Before all is said and done, conflict emerges in every conceivable combination.

Some of the humor is calculatedly outrageous and the play itself emerges as an idiosyncratic comedy of manners, a sort of mash-up of farce, Theatre of the Absurd and conventional comedy. These actors commit themselves totally to the material and each has fine, memorable moments. While the play calls for all characters to be in their 40s, in this production the Raleighs are clearly older than that. The generational contrast doesn’t really add or subtract from the quality of the play, other than to pose the question of why Alan and Annette have such a young son.

But neither the script nor this production allow viewers much time to question the premise or the events on stage. Performed in a brisk 80 minutes, more or less, without an intermission, this is one of those roller-coaster plays. It grabs you by the collar and shoves you around, going for laughs as the increasingly hostile and ultimately inebriated people on stage speak savage truths that some of us may think but rarely articulate.

But what does it all add up to? This piece affected me much like another Reza/Hampton play, “Art.” It was thoroughly engaging as I watched, but I contemplated a basic question at the end of the evening: Is that all there is?

Read more theater news at kansascity.com.

© 2011 Kansas City Star and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved

On stage, playing it short, as in ‘God of Carnage,’ is a virtue

The Kansas City Star
Let’s call it in-and-out theater.

As the Unicorn Theatre and Kansas City Actors Theatre prepare to open their co-production of “God of Carnage,” we see that Yasmina Reza’s caustic comedy is part of an undeniable trend. Look around and you might conclude that we’re in the golden age of one-act plays.

“God of Carnage” is expected to run about 80 minutes or less without an intermission. John Logan’s “Red,” which opened the Unicorn’s season, ran 90 minutes straight through.

From left, Melinda McCrary, Brian Paulette, Cinnamon Schultz and John Rensenhouse (Unicorn/KCAT)

Over at the Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre, Bob Paisley’s production of Keith Huff’s “A Steady Rain” clocks in at almost 90 uninterrupted minutes. The same is true of “The Year of Magical Thinking,” the one-actress play by Joan Didion that opened last week at the Living Room.

And the American Heartland Theatre’s production of “Nobody Lonesome for Me,” Lanie Robertson’s meditation on Hank Williams’ last night on Earth, would have run 90 minutes had the Heartland not inserted an intermission (with the playwright’s approval).

There’s nothing new about one-act plays. Reza’s first big international hit, “Art,” was performed without an intermission. And Edward Albee’s “The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?” enjoyed a long Broadway run.

But they seem to have proliferated in recent years, and some of them have attracted wide audiences. “Red” and “God of Carnage” were Broadway hits, and Roman Polanski’s film adaptation of Reza’s play, titled simply “Carnage,” is expected to be released later this year.

“Usually I have one show a season that has no intermission, sometimes two,” said Cynthia Levin, the Unicorn’s producing artistic director. “This season four of our shows have no intermission. What I worry about is that plays are becoming shorter, because they are learning to tell a story in a shorter amount of time, because people’s attention spans are shorter.”

“God of Carnage” has been described as a play whose effectiveness is a direct result of its compact running time. In it, two couples meet to discuss a playground incident involving their children, and what begins as civilized conversation deteriorates as primitive emotions are laid bare. The Unicorn cast includes John Rensenhouse, Melinda McCrary, Brian Paulette and Cinnamon Schultz.

“I do think it’s the right length,” said Mark Robbins, who is directing “God of Carnage.” “I would have hated to see her try to pad it out to a longer play. … I guess what Reza likes to do is kind of rip the lid off the bourgeoisie and show us the kind of primitive, childish, feral people they are underneath. It happens in real time in front of your eyes. It’s an event, and then it’s over.”

There are exceptions, of course. Kansas City Repertory Theatre’s recent production of “August: Osage County” presented a play that ran counter to contemporary playwriting trends. Tracy Letts wrote a three-act play with two intermissions that requires an audience to sit for more than three hours. It was sprawling, verbose, textured — sort of a melodrama wearing its Sunday best.

But it could be, in the age of texting and tweeting, that concision in drama is inevitable. It’s tough to pick up a play by one of the great American 20th-century dramatists — Arthur Miller or Eugene O’Neill, for example — without thinking they could have told their stories with fewer words.

“I think it’s cool, dramatically, to hold people’s attention and not let them go and the beginning, middle and end happen in front of you without a breather,” Levin said. “You shouldn’t really be given a chance to sit and evaluate what’s happened until the play has completely done its job 90 minutes later.”

Read more theater news at kansascity.com.

© 2011 Kansas City Star and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.