Four WASPS and a cell phone are featured in Yasmina Reza’s God of Carnage, now on the stage of the Old Globe’s White Theatre.
Mom on the landline has a supporting role.
It’s a pocket-sized version of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?: Fewer revelations, diminished booze and far less time lapsed but comparable in quantity of poisonous residue.
It’s always astonishing how easily the veneer of civilization can be stripped away, even in the world of high-price strivers who can afford cute food and esthetic excess as insulation. Reza, being a dramatist of keen vision and superb technique, demonstrates with an efficiency to be envied by stage magicians.
Two couples, in upscale Brooklyn, have met to discuss a playground encounter of their sons. The Raleigh boy took a stick and whacked the Novak boy in the face. There’s talk of a broken tooth. What should happen next?
The meeting has been called by Veronica Novak, who’s taking time off from chronicling genocide in Darfur. The Raleighs are appropriately appalled at their son’s guilt but vague about blame stuff. Especially Alan Raleigh, a lean and high-priced lawyer fidgeting to be on his way.
Enter the cell phone, just as uneasy settlement looms. Alan’s big pharmacy client is being hit by a surprise class-action suit and he’s got to take the helm. Hustlers’ hearts everywhere go out to him.
But not so much in the room, where conversation halts as he starts his damage control, then returns to earth with a “What?” It’s a pattern that will become fateful. Every successive call seems to make things worse. Voices are raised, inhibitions discarded and old wounds open. Violence is in the air but…
Reza is too cool to let these people act out. Better to return them to their solitary cells of depression, nothing accomplished. The only victims are some cut flowers, a stack of coffee table books, a hamster and, most telling, that cell phone. The God of Carnage is satisfied this time with symbolic sacrifices. And the God of Chaos can wait.
Who amongst us has not been a party to some such train-wreck, no? Well, not me and you, of course, but you know what I mean. The laughter is rueful and nervous. This all really could happen. And Mom does tend to call at the worst times!
If this play is not cleansing, it is cautionary. We all have to adjust our loads for the long haul or we might start falling back down the slope.
Amazingly, God of Carnage has been translated from the French and transported from a Paris location. Of course, the translator – Christopher Hampton – is a master himself. And Reza is a proven commodity (Art, etc.) But she’s French, he’s British and this play seems so right at home in Brooklyn, down to the local idioms.
The Globe production, staged by Richard Seer, is a reunion of sorts for three of the actors who studied with Seer in the USD/Globe graduate program. T. Ryder Smith, whippet lean and gimlet-eyed as the lawyer, is the outsider, yet he’s also a Globe veteran who once played, I believe, Abraham Lincoln.
Caitlin Muelder plays Alan’s wife, who he calls “Woof Woof” after the old pop song “Doggie in the Window.” She’s a poster girl for repressed neuroticism and an accomplished hand at nasty stage business. Erika Rolfsrud plays the tree-hugger mom as if she’s just dying to pass around a petition while Lucas Caleb Rooney smolders but never quite ignites as the common-man of the ensemble. Although Seer allows them too much exaggeration with telling individual tics he steers the arc of the piece in smooth and inexorable style.
The, um, durable sets and costumes are by Robert Morgan and routine assignments for lighting and sound are carried out smartly by Chris Rynne and Paul Peterson.
But this isn’t a play that needs tricky illusions. It could play out comfortably in many living rooms we know. Not yours or mine, of course, but…