Tracey Maloney (Annette Raleigh), Jennifer Blagen (Veronica Novak), Chris Carlson (Bill Novak) and Bill McCallum (Alan Raleigh) in the Guthrie Theater production of "God of Carnage" by Yasmina Reza.
Photo by Paul Kolnik
God of Carnage by Yasmina Reza runs through August 7 at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. Thinking of seeing the show? Check out what the local critics think. Have you already seen the show? Then share your review in the comments section.
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Ostensibly, the play is about two couples meeting to hash out an apology. The son of Veronica and Michael (Jennifer Blagen and Chris Carlson) has lost two teeth in a playground battle with the son of Annette and Alan (Tracey Maloney and Bill McCallum). The four gather at Veronica and Michael's tastefully uncomfortable home to discuss the unruly kids but, more important, to demonstrate that when it comes to unruliness their children are rank amateurs. By the end of the afternoon, insults, cellphones, purses and plenty of even more unpleasant things have been hurled.
Yasmina Reza's play often gets compared to Edward Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf," which also is about a long, drunken encounter between two couples where the balance of power keeps shifting. That comparison is not fair because "Woolf" is a masterpiece and "Carnage" is a much more modest affair - the sort of evening of semi-outrageous entertainment that will immediately be forgotten afterward when you're deciding what to eat to finish off the evening. It's a glib little play (translated, like all of Reza's comedies by Christopher Hampton, whose own work - including the play, "Dangerous Liaisons," and the film, "Atonement" - is more ambitious than Reza's). But it feels like it's aware that it's not terribly insightful, so it gets in, gets some laughs and gets out inside of 90 minutes.
... But if their dialogue gets less compelling, these fine actors still manage to raise the stakes in their argument until, by the end, it's clear both that they're not bickering about a playground feud and that the collateral damage of a couple teeth is nothing. Heck, with these people for role models, it's a miracle their little monsters didn't rip each other's lungs out.
Jennifer Blagen (Veronica Novak) and Chris Carlson (Bill Novak) in the Guthrie Theater production of "God fo Carnage" by Yasmina Reza.
Photo by Paul Kolnik
We are having such a good time watching the bile fly, the repressed recriminations rise and the unvarnished brickbats sting that we can be lulled into enjoying Yasmina Reza's "God of Carnage" as a high-toned sitcom. Indeed, in venues less polite than the Guthrie's proscenium theater, we might hear the catcalls ("You go, girl!") or the swelling assent as a juicy insult lands ("Woooooooooh!").
Ah, but we are in the THEE-ah-tah, and perhaps our society's assumed gentility is the mark for Reza's stiletto.
"Morality decrees we should control our impulses," says Alan, a suave legal shark and one of the combatants. "But sometimes it's good not to control them."
Really? Where would we be without centuries of carefully crafted religion, law, ethics and manners to hide behind?
"I'm a Neanderthal," shouts Michael, Alan's opposite, and we wonder whether he might be the most honest character in this parlor farce.
...Certainly, the joy of "God of Carnage" lies in watching "folks like us" savage each other for 90 minutes. Reza's strong suit is an ear for dialogue, yet don't discount her ideas. Like a dagger, their impact may not occur until we notice much later the blood flowing from our ribs.
Bill McCallum (Alan Raleigh) Chris Carlson (Bill Novak) and Tracey Maloney (Annette Raleigh) in the Guthrie Theater production of "God of Carnage" by Yasmina Reza. Photo by Paul Kolnik
... when Michael breaks out the high end rum, the play takes on a truly frightening spin. That these people are so well groomed, so contained, so perfectly upper class makes their shrieking deterioration lusciously comic. Ms. Reza's feel for these sweetly nasty characters (it helps that she is French) is flawless.
At the end of this ninety minute free-for-all, the characters, the playwright, and the audience are spent. "What do we know...?" someone asks, panting. Indeed. God Of Carnage is a long day's journey into... well, perhaps not that much. But it is, thanks to the smart writing, a hoot and then some, and the Guthrie cast makes the trip well worth taking.