‘God of Carnage’ thoroughly engaging but leaves basic question

By ROBERT TRUSSELL
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

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