Every child eventually discovers that their parents are not necessarily the paragons of virtue they pretend to be, and every bartender knows that the difference between society and savagery is about four Cosmos and a jello shot.
The question is, do we need another play to tell us that adults are just big, wrinkly children? Or that beneath civilization's thin veneer of manners, laws, customs, and courtesies lies the vile, primitive brutishness of nature? The answer is no, unless the play is funny, in which case it can be forgiven for its thematic transgressions. And if the play is short—say 75 minutes—so much the better.
Fortunately, God of Carnage , by French-Israeli playwright Yasmina Reza, is both funny and short—too short, in fact, to be taken as a very serious play. But it is witty, and, as the passive-aggressive barbs turn into just plain aggression, it essentially becomes a sit-com in the form of a stage play.
The setup is simple: Two neurotic, professionally accomplished couples are meeting for the first time to discuss a playground incident involving their eleven-year-old boys. One knocked out the other's front teeth with a stick, so the "adults" must come to some sort of agreement about what is to be done. The conversation begins courteously enough, but devolves into hysteria as the gloves gradually come off and the true nature of each character is revealed. (Sound familiar?)
God of Carnage was originally written in French, but Christopher Hampton's translation and John Miller-Stephany's direction turn it into a very American play, so much so that it's difficult to detect anything remotely European about it. Parental pettiness is universal, it seems, and lawyers are schmucks everywhere.
What God of Carnage lacks in originality it more than makes up for in laughs, and the comic timing of the Guthrie cast is almost impeccable. Chris Carlson (who for my money is the most gifted comic actor in town) plays Michael Novak, the owner of a business that sells houseware items, and his wife (Jennifer Blagen), is a writer of socially conscientious books on Africa. The other couple is Alan and Annette Raleigh (played by Bill McCallum and Tracy Maloney). Mr. Raleigh is a lawyer who is constantly answering phone calls, and his wife is, shall we say, wound a little too tight. McCallum gets Bill's self-important arrogance just right, and Maloney does a fantastic job playing the prim, eager-to-please wife who secretly detests her husband.
How either of these marriages works is hard to fathom, since each character is practically a different species of human being. Then again, that may be the point: that marriages, like society, are held together by a thin tissue of artifice that's surprisingly easy to tear.
And tear it does as the insults fly, the liquor flows, and the characters come increasingly unhinged. As each round of dialogue unfolds, however, the alliances between the characters shift around in various entertaining ways. When it is revealed that the incident may have been caused because one of the boys runs a "gang," the women are horrified, but the men suddenly start reminiscing fondly about their own gangs as children. And when Bill the lawyer goes berserk because his phone got wet, the women are united in their contempt for men and their love of gadgets.
Reza is a witty writer, and uses these shifting sympathies to reveal details about her characters and nudge them ever closer to the perilous "moment of truth," which is never a happy moment in any play. In Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf , however, you have to wait about three hours for that moment to come. Yasmina Reza gets you there in a third of the time, with three times as many laughs, so do the math. In the final analysis, the god of carnage is a merciful one; she'll have you home before dark.
The God of Carnage continues at The Guthrie Theater through Aug. 7.