Who are these people?
Not since George and Martha and their unsuspecting guests in Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf have two couples crashed and burned as spectacularly as they do in God of Carnage, which opened last week at Arizona Theatre Company.
In Yasmina Reza's play, however, the tone is much lighter. In fact, it's a comedy of no manners in which we watch the devolution of four classy people as they attempt to address an incident between their two young sons in the most civil of ways.
But the lighter tone doesn't attempt to hide the ugly truth about these folks. You can disguise the savagery that clings to their DNA with education, wealth, a world-centric sensibility and impeccable manners—but with a little provocation, that savagery is too powerful to be contained. It's the essence of who we are, and from where we have come.
We are these people.
French playwright Reza enables us to laugh at her characters, even as it's obvious that there is a message in all this raucous foolishness. Director Rick Lombardo has allowed his talented cast to create characters who push against civility's—and civilization's—veneer as hard as they can before bursting through its boundaries, which are not as solid and stable as perhaps we'd like to think.
Michael (Bob Sorenson) and Veronica (Amy Resnick) Novak have welcomed the Raleighs, Alan (Benjamin Evett) and Annette (Joey Parsons), into their imposing and tastefully appointed home. The purpose is to discuss the fact that the Raleighs' son Benjamin has whacked Henry, the Novaks' lad, in the mouth, causing him to lose two teeth. Their demeanor is strained, but both couples deport themselves in a cordial, if chilly, fashion. Lawyer Alan perpetrates the first disturbance to good manners by taking a call on his cell phone during the discussion. He does this repeatedly, revealing to all within earshot his shady advice to a client whose product might be causing harm to the public.
Annette, who we learn is in wealth management, is visibly upset by her husband's behavior, while Michael and Veronica try to keep the discussion on point. Bit by bit, the whole fabric of the cloth in which the group's true feelings have been dressed is unraveled, exposing ugly, bitter and hateful hooligans. Couples vs. couples. Gender vs. gender. Husband vs. wife. It's an uncensored, extreme, nothing-spared meltdown. It's utterly horrible at the same time that it is utterly hilarious. We are as disturbed as we are delighted. This is very funny stuff.
Reza's none-too-subtle approach to a subject which makes many of us uncomfortable is quite obvious within the first five minutes. But her work is not so much sermon as it is skirmish—an outrageously comic skirmish made even funnier by the irony of who these people are and what they have gathered to do. We have created so many institutions which exist to manage, or even quash, what lies within us, and it's not only funny, but also liberating, to watch these characters drop their façades in the wickedly extreme ways Reza has devised. It's not the subject, but Reza's inventions—and a cast which can bring them to life—which carry the evening.
Even as we take our seats, Kent Dorsey's handsome set gives us numerous clues about what we are about to witness. The large rough-hewn stones which constitute the walls of the upscale home of Michael and Veronica undeniably suggest a cave-like habitat. You can even imagine the petroglyphs carved into the stones.
Reza's piece could be a mess if performed with a less-than-stellar cast. However, Sorenson embodies Michael with disintegrating dignity as he is called upon to use a hair dryer on the pages of the coffee-table books onto which Annette has vomited in a copious manner. Evett is the lawyer who gives lawyers a bad name—self-centered and cocky, he's a little boy utterly lost without an ear attached to his favorite toy. Resnick is Veronica, a writer who sincerely wants to save the world, but has no real way to deal with what is unfolding in her living room. Her attempts to cope lead her to alcohol, a substance which causes within her a most-unattractive dissolution. Parsons, as the uptight financial manager, uses her facility with physical comedy to steal the most-outrageous laughs of the evening.
Reza's piece, which was translated by Christopher Hampton, is really a lengthy one-act play which never lags, but builds in comic intensity as these characters come apart. And Reza is an equal opportunity satirist: There is nothing which she doesn't slap around unmercifully.
Reza provides an interesting insight within the devolved playground she constructs: As ridiculous as our hypocrisies are, they are absolutely necessary. Without these institutions, conventions and socially approved behaviors, we each would be alone, unable to connect, individually isolated. We may have been created by a god of carnage—an origin we cannot escape—but to survive, we must become our own creators, stitching together the rags of a most imperfect world. This allows us to at least try not to be alone. The final image presented to us is as haunting as the action has been hilarious.
ATC's production is a fine one, with the usual capable elements of design, and well-run performances. It may provoke a thought or two, but don't let that scare you away: The laughs win out.