Do not miss God of Carnage, continuing this week, June 26-30, at Theatre Raleigh|Hot Summer Nights at the Kennedy. That is, unless you just cannot bear to watch civility unmasked and shredded by four first-rate actors in an extended one-act of slashing brilliance. In Yasmina Reza’s painfully humorous 2006 play (translated from the French by Christopher Hampton), two sets of parents meet to discuss what needs to be done about the son of one pair bashing the son of the other couple and breaking out two of the kid’s teeth. What starts with conciliation destructs into a feral confrontation as Grown-ups Behave Badly. You may leave the theater feeling you’ve witnessed a kind of prelude to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.
The scene takes place in Veronica (Dana Marks) and Michael (Michael Tourek) Novak’s apartment, which is worth a little description. Designed (along with the lighting) by Chris Bernier, the set gives us a self-consciously cultured yet barren living room. Bright pillows form a casual row along a pale couch, in front of which a sleek modern table supports carefully arranged piles of large books. There are more on the floor and near a severe side table holding a glass vase of tulips. On the opposite side of the couch, a similar table holds a matching vase and flowers, and a drinks tray. Two white and chrome side chairs sit on a dark red rug; behind the couch rises a tree of life, a relief form in a multi-paneled wall-size artwork, also dark red. There’s not one sign of actual life (children live here?): It all looks as if it belongs in a home furnishings catalog, aspiring hip bourgeois variety.
Veronica and Michael have just been joined by Annette (Julie Fishell) and Alan (Derrick Ivey) Raleigh, and its clear from the first instant that they come from a different, and rather more moneyed, tier of the class cake. But class is just one of the strings Reza pulls to effect the unravelling that takes place over the show’s hour and a half. Gender issues and marriage issues get their due, but at the core, the question for each character is, what values do you hold when irritation and rage have swept aside all the mannered overlays? The construct of the play has each character flipping back and forth between civilized control and savage self-assertion, the pace building to frenzy. Each of the actors here has the power and the timing to pull it off, and at one level the production satisfies simply because it is a pleasure to see actors exercising their craft so well. Julie Fishell (as she did in last year’s August, Osage County at HSNK) blisters the atmosphere around her, and it is fantastic to see her working with Dana Marks, with her explosive physicality, as they zip between alliance and total war. All four characters do this at different times–the alliances between married partners often do not hold. Ivey and Tourek are also very strong.
God of Carnage is a talk play, but director Richard Roland (also associate artistic director of Theatre Raleigh) has devised so much action that what you take away in memory is movement sequences, with words. One of the truly funny moments involves Veronica jumping up and down on her husband, and there’s a bit with a cellphone that may go viral. But most of the humor is pretty dark. Don’t go to it thinking that this is a feel-good play–it’s just a good play. And it may set you to worrying that old bone “truth is beauty.” There’s truth here, but it sure ain’t pretty.