What if ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’ were a comedy? It’d be ‘Carnage’
GOD OF CARNAGE
Kalita Humphreys Theater, 3636 Turtle Creek Blvd. Through June 17.
There’s a good reason why God of Carnage, in its regional premiere at the Kalita, takes place over 75 uninterrupted minutes: No one in their right mind would return to spend any more time with this quartet of insufferable vipers if they didn’t have to. This is a compliment of the highest order. The playwright, Yasmina Reza (with a translation by Christopher Hampton), has done such an expert job in choreographing this ballet of passive-aggression, snowballing so inexorably to a bombastic finale, that an intermission would destroy the momentum, and you might see through its artifice. Instead, it’s like ripping off a Band-Aid: A quick twinge, then relief.
Of course, bandage removal has never been quite so funny as this play, set in a poshly furnished Cobble Hill apartment in a tony part of Brooklyn. It begins with tea-and-crumpet civility: Two sets of parents, Veronica and Michael (Christina Vela, Hassan El-Amin) and Alan and Annette (Chris Hury, Sally Nystuen-Vahle) are meeting to discuss how Alan and Annette’s son has struck Veronica and Michael’s with a stick in a schoolyard scuffle, knocking out two teeth. They seem to want to move past this unfortunate incident, only Veronica can’t seem to let it go: She’s constantly making catty jibes, which irk boorish power-lawyer Alan. Slowly, it becomes a comedy of bad manners … and then eventually, something else, an expiation of the stresses of modern life — Lord of the Flies moved to a Brooklyn brownstone.
The conceit is, frankly, a bit too-too; you can foresee the direction it’s headed almost from the start (“the parents are more childish than the kids!”). But as a piece of theater, you see what it’s asking: “What if Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? were a comedy?” Its power lies in Reza’s careful modulation of the tiny bits of urban life that collectively weigh on our psyches: Words and pop-culture references (from clafoutis to John Wayne to Kokoschka to cell phones) take on prickly significance in their specificity. And she carefully orchestrates the shifting allegiances between this band of middle-aged brats, from couple-vs.-couple, men-vs.-women and a few 3-vs.-1 scenarios.
Dallas Theater Center’s outrageous production, helmed with a sophisticated grotesquery by Joel Ferrell, is not only gorgeously appointed (John Arnone’s set screams impending bloodbath and pseudo-intellectual pretentiousness in one breath), but exceptionally well acted by the cast. They spit their recriminations (sometimes quite literally, as in an hilariously nasty vomiting sequence) with such comic vitriol you can’t resist eavesdropping on this train-wreck confrontation.
Hury snivels like a sewer rat who’s picked up the scent of garbage and can’t wait to spread a little plague along his way. Nystuen-Vahle turns the seemingly passive Annette into a comic centerpiece (watching her drunkenly put on her shoes is a sly moment of hilarity you have to pay attention to catch). Vela shares antagonistic duties with Hury, at once sincerely nurturing and inviting you to hate her for caving into such prim stereotypes of limousine liberalism.
The voyeuristic appeal of God of Carnage is probably similar to watching The Real Housewives of Hades: We get to feel superior to the one-percenters, and don’t even have to live in a tent city on Wall Street.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition May 25, 2012.