"God of Carnage”, currently playing at the Salt Lake Acting Company, skillfully conflates the hazy line between parenthood and childhood, thanks to the tightly-woven, hilarious script and colorful cast of four.
When two boys engage in a playtime dispute in the park, their parents, the Novaks and the Raleighs, meet to discuss disciplinary responsibility and fall to the lawless level of their children through a series of disputes of their own. Winner of the 2009 Tony Award for Best Play and 2009 Olivier Award for Best New Comedy, it's well worth a trip to the theater.
Every aspect of the play—from the symbolically placed elements of the set (such as a large, washed-out tree branch mounted on the wall as a staple of living room decor) to the witty details of the dialogue—highlights the deliberate planning of French playwright Yasmina Reza. To be this carefully conscientious, Reza might run the risk of becoming over-explicit; in this case, however, the details are so subtle that the audience is often pleasantly surprised. For example, at the moment they realize that the decorative piece of driftwood is, in fact, strongly suggestive of the stick that served as a weapon in the children’s argument. The symbol evokes the violence that prevails even in the adult world, though it may be disguised as art or decoration or shrouded in an air of politeness.
And in a witty moment of foreshadowing, Annette Raleigh (Christy Summerhays) congratulates the Novaks for their civility, exclaiming, “how many parents, standing up for their children, become infantile themselves.” Of course, her observation precedes their impending descent into chaos.
Snide comments begin to fly and suddenly the parents embody the very actions they should be condemning. Their own children, and the sources of the original conflict, are interestingly absent—they never appear onstage, forcing the focus to remain on the adult characters, who end up acting like children anyway.
Indeed, Michael Novak’s (Zack Phifer) elderly mother is more present than the children are; though not onstage, she makes phone calls to the house several times and is referred to in conversation, which solidifies the adults’ juvenile roles. Take the first few moments of the play, when Annette and Alan Raleigh are sitting in the living room across from Veronica and Michael Novak, all smiling sweetly at each other through the thick awkward silence of strangers. Thirty minutes later, and Veronica (Nell Gwynn) will be lying on the couch crying, and Alan (Darrin Doman) will be slumped on the floor against a bookcase, head in hands.
Perhaps the element that makes the play simultaneously comedic and disturbing is how much the audience learns about the characters as they digress. The personal, social, and marital problems that become clear seem to be rooted in their child-like behavior. When Michael loses his temper and roars that he “is not a member of polite society” but is, and always has been “a f------ Neanderthal,” the audience sees the type of savagery that drove him to release the family’s aggravating pet hamster out in the street at night. And the mild, somewhat bland character of Annette suddenly comes alive when she finally breaks and refuses to accept her husband’s incessant attachment to his phone. The action is constant, regardless of the simple, linear time span of several hours and the unchanging set. The characters flip-flop around, shouting, taking sides, changing loyalties, and at the height of the conflict, their reactions are as unpredictable as a toddler’s. Through it all, the question constantly arises—“So what have we decided?” Obviously unanswered, it only emphasizes the parents’ inability to solve the problem, reminding the audience that even mom and dad don’t know everything, and some people never really grow up.
"God of Carnage" runs from Oct. 12-Nov. 6. For tickets, contact the Salt Lake Acting Company box office at 801-363-7522 or click here.