It all begins amicably enough. Two sets of parents in the Cobble Hill neighborhood of Brooklyn meet to cordially discuss a fight that has taken place between their two 11-year old sons, a fight in which one boy struck the other with a stick, breaking two teeth. However, Yasmina Reza’s God of Carnage, translated from the French original by Christopher Hampton and currently in a run at Theatre Knoxville Downtown, quickly becomes anything but cordial. Good intentions evaporate as the meeting plummets from pleasantries into a conflict between civilized behavior and savagery that uses comedic relief to ameliorate the dramatic tension.
The aggressor in the fight is the son of Alan, a corporate lawyer (Jeffrey Eberting), and his wife Annette, who works in “wealth management” (Carrie Booher Thompson). They have, in principal at least, accepted responsibility for the situation with initial degrees of apologies and regret. The meeting is being hosted at the home of the victim’s parents: Michael, a household goods wholesaler (Jim Conn), and Veronica, a writer on African topics (Crystal Braeuner).
After superficial pleasantries of espresso and clafouti, and chitchat over art books, the get-together begins to break down. We quickly see that the boys’ playground fight is a metaphor for the hostility that lurks just beneath the surface of all four parents. At first, that hostility is veiled and tempered, but it turns into snideness and insults, not just between the couples, but also between each other. By the conclusion, everyone has been exposed; everyone realizes they are symbolically naked in the world.
Along the way, Reza pushes and pulls the audience with a number of motivating situations. A decanter of rum, liberally consumed, twists the conflict in unexpected directions. Lawyer Alan, in the midst of a crisis over a pharmaceutical company he represents, constantly breaks away to take a call on his cellphone. Alan’s self-serving behavior drives Annette into nausea, with the inevitable physical results. Through this, the audience sees the truth to their well-concealed shaky relationship.
Michael and Veronica, too, find the covers ripped off their marriage. With inhibitions removed by the rum, Michael reveals his irritation with what he sees as his wife’s hypocritical progressivism. Veronica’s exploration is even more uncomfortable as her civility turns animalistic when her take on the world is challenged.
The key to the success of this production of God of Carnage, directed by Greg Congleton, is the casting of the two couples with actors able to skillfully push and pull against each other and find those brilliant moments along the play’s arc where layers of character are revealed. Of course, we laugh with relish at watching the harsh side of personalities being revealed—what does that say about us?
God of Carnage continues Thursdays – Sundays thru September 10 at Theatre Knoxville Downtown, 319 N. Gay Street.
Photo credit: Ed Dumas