Signature Theatre God of CarnageBy Genie Baskir • Apr 27th, 2012 • Category: Reviews
Signature Theatre, Arlington, VA
Through June 24th
1:20 without intermission
$56-80 + fees
Reviewed April 25th, 2012
Two little boys have a confrontation in the park. They are playing not in any park, but in only the most prestigious and chic of Brooklyn’s many parks. One ends up injured with some lasting dental damage. Quel horreur! What are two sets of wealthy, progressive and precocious parents to do about this? Such is the premise of God of Carnage, an illustration of a conference between two sets of fortunate parents trying to manage the fallout of the controversy. They are all just too civilized to call the incident a fight.
Your humble reviewer must admit to a fondness for French playwright Yasmina Reza and her small portraits of the upper middle class and its precocities and pretensions. In the case of her God of Carnage, adapted for the American stage by Christopher Hampton and presented by Signature Theatre, I can’t but think that if France had Judge Judy this play would not be necessary.
Let’s start with our characters. Director Joe Calarco expertly cast his actors so that each and every respective physical attribute tells us everything we need to know about who each individual character is. Costumer Kathleen Geldard punctuated the character illustration with supporting apparel so cunning there was no mistaking the pretenses of each role. One glance and the audience has these people’s numbers.
Michael Novak (Andy Brownstein) is a cuddly bear of a man pretending to Bergdorf Goodman Men’s Store style in a Bill Cosby sweater that his wife makes him wear. A successful everyman from the outer boroughs of New York City, he is proud of his success as a small businessman and savors the fashion and perfection of his lovely home, played as a mash-up of Restoration Hardware meets Mad Men mid 20th century, modern design (Scenic Designer James Kronzer). He is married to Veronica Novak (Naomi Jacobson), a tightly wound helicopter mother in high-end yoga fashion from Barney’s. Veronica is a homemaking, clafouti baking frustrated progressive, masquerading as an artsy f*rtsy free lance writer. She abjures her upper middle class homemaker privilege and self-absorption as she tosses her affectations into the face of Annette Raleigh (Vanessa Lock), a Tom Wolfish type social X-ray, who works full-time as a wealth manager. Now, your reviewer has no personal criticisms of the women in this play. She very well sees herself in Veronica and no one has ever accused her of being smart enough to work in any industry, let alone wealth management, as does Annette. Your reviewer has also made clafouti; something she will not ever do again after seeing this show. Annette is married to Alan Raleigh (Paul Morella), a high-powered corporate counsel and litigator whose constant cell phone preoccupation finances both his and Annette’s outings to Brooks Brothers.
Of course, Michael and Veronica are the aggrieved parents of the injured victim, Henry. Alan and Annette are the parents of the aggressor, Benjamin. In the course of the show the two parties try to come to terms on handling the incident as the passive aggressive Veronica demands contrition from the unseen Benjamin and the comically confrontational Alan defends his son from fault by demeaning the unseen Henry as the aggressor who insulted Benjamin, thereby compelling poor Benjamin to knock Henry’s teeth out with a stick . The conference devolves into a chaotic argument and physical battle among the four very educated and civilized parents. The genius of the snarl is how the four combatants keep forming new and different alliances among themselves as the topics descend from the uncertain contrition of Benjamin to the murder by abandonment of a hamster named Nibbles. The intellectual and emotional unfaithfulness of the two couples drives the comedy and expedites the narrative as the alliances shift and the topics morph into discussions of everything but the two little boys. These parents, it turns out, are no less immature and unrestrained than their sons. “Children consume our lives and then destroy them,” says Michael. The veneer of family unity is stripped of its sentimentality. And this show will never be adapted for television by the Lifetime Channel.
This show is hilarious!! These four very fine actors never leave their characters and every detail of their respective temperaments is explored. When Michael removes his fancy, schmancy sweater, we see the burly New Yorker sans pretense. He does not work in a professional office in Manhattan. He goes out each and every day to make a living and support his beloved family. He makes no apologies for who he is. Alan, on the other hand, is not as effete as he initially seems and his impertinence drives much of the argumentation. Veronica wants to make a difference in the world in her holistic and parochial, self-righteous attempt to civilize someone else’s child. Annette truly wants to do the right thing even while throwing up over rare and out of print books by artists no one has ever heard of.
Reza’s signature situational element always involves off stage interruption of the action; in this case with telephones. Michael’s mother keeps calling and interrupting the action with her health issues that involve taking a dangerous medication that Alan represents; while he is trying to cover up the danger of this medication with his cell phone interruptions from a colleague named…as usual in New York…Murray. Refreshingly, in this situation comedy set in New York City, the only Jewish character might be the unseen Murray. No bagels, no Nova Scotia lox (just plain nova to the cognoscenti), nothing from Mile End or Shelsky’s Deli. Just regular non Seinfeldian folks beating one another up. What an advancement against stereotype.
One imagines the hilarity of this play in its original French, set in some tony arrondissement in Paris with two elegant and refined families trying to come to a consensus as they reduce themselves to street hooligans in garments from Galeries Lafayette and L’Eclaireur. Unfortunately, its American translation reduces the plot to a potty mouthed sitcom on HBO or an extended Saturday Night Live sketch. Your reviewer feels like the adaptation for Broadway took the easy way out and presented, for a New York audience, Yiddish farce without the Jews. However, that is not Signature Theatre’s concern. It presented a marvelous production faithful to the composition it was presented with.
Your unambitious reviewer recommends this show and warrants that, if nothing else, the worth of the ticket price to this show is bound up in the relief at not having to clean up the mess on stage at the end of this very funny play.
Photos by Scott Suchman
- Michael Novak: Andy Brownstein
- Veronica Novak: Naomi Jacobson
- Annette Raleigh: Vanessa Lock
- Alan Raleigh: Paul Morella
Disclaimer: Signature Theatre provided two complimentary media tickets to ShowBizRadio for this review.
This article can be linked to as: http://washingtondc.showbizradio.com/goto/7935.
Genie Baskir is a theatrical producer. She worked in radio production and direction for many years and gravitated to theatre when family members became involved with the stage.