Goodman Theatre’s God of Carnage is a brilliant play replete with witty writing, an incredibly talented cast, and simple yet well-executed direction. Written by Yazmena Reza and winner of three Tony Awards including “Best Play,” the play surrounds two well-to-do couples who meet to resolve a playground conflict involving their two children. As the play unfolds, the meeting’s initial diplomacy and awkward formality yield to chaos, bickering, and Neanderthal-like barbarism. Directed by Rick Snyder and starring Mary Beth Fischer, Keith Kupferer, Beth Lacke, and David Pasquesi, this dark comedy is an absolute must-see!
This one-act play takes place in real-time in the lavish living room of wealthy middle-aged couple Veronica and Michael. Set in the present in Cobbie Hill, Brooklyn, everything about the home calls out “opulence”---the massive Roman arched-doorway, the modern satin couches and chaiz chairs, the spotless white walls and dark wooded floors, and the perfectly placed ivory tulips. When Annette and Alan walk into Veronica and Michael’s home at the start of the play, it almost feels like an episode of Real Housewives of New York City. The authenticity of the actors and the more narrow focus of the play, however, quickly dismiss that notion. But the general premise---that of two yuppie couples taking the day off work to confront each other on a brawl involving their spoiled 7 year-old children, still calls to mind this dramatic reality TV show. While
one might fear that an entire play devoted to one meager confrontation might grow dreary, the play’s incisive look at human nature makes it incredibly relatable and illuminative.
Part of what makes this play so relatable and funny is the bold personas each character exhibits. The four characters are people easily recognizable in life, exaggerated just a bit to bring out the humor of their personalities. Veronica (Mary Beth Fisher) is an intelligent, worldly, overly involved, aggressive wife,
the type of woman who seems to carry the reigns of the relationship. Her husband, Michael (Keith Kupferer) is the more aloof, crass, working-class, wants-to-relax-and-enjoy-life kind-of-a-man. Alan (David Pasquesi) is a stereotyped corporate lawyer--- glued to his phone and uninterested in trivialities. Uniquely, however, when he is not on the phone, he is incredibly laid back. His wife, Annette (Beth Lacke) is a beautiful, diplomatic, seemingly sweet and perfect, meek woman. When all four characters come together, these grandiose caricatures make for a lot of laughs!
When Allen asks the others, “how many parents standing up for their children become infantile themselves?” he sums up one of the focal themes of the play. When free from society’s stringent rules and left to their own devices, adults will inevitably behave like children. In this play, the personal attacks on loved ones and on each other lead the two couples to rapidly lose their sanity and fall privy to childish behavior. Ironically, Veronica, who defines the brawl between the two children as counter to the values of western civilization, is
completely oblivious to her own barbaric behavior. In a highly politically incorrect (and consequently humorous) fashion, she describes the children’s behavior as un-American, primitive, and “African”-like.
While both couples initially behave as if all is fine and swell, once the conversations surround proper parenting and the lack thereof, the four individuals abandon their more decorous adult-like manners. Soon, every response becomes impulsive and brash, with little to no care being taken as to what is said or done. As a result of this impulsiveness, each character’s allies constantly fluctuate. While the bickering initiates between the two couples, eventually the lines get blurred and each character sides with whomever is most convenient in the moment. At one point, the stage becomes a male versus female warzone. From a sociological perspective, the play sheds light on the innate act of ally-making and ally-breaking.
Moreover, as the characters surrender their picture perfect images and allow their true colors to show, the inner, intricate layers of the human character are revealed. The play exposes the fact that individuals, while projecting a certain defined, socially-acceptable image, have a much deeper, meatier story itching to come out of its shell. In this play (and often in life), alcohol is used as a medium to break through that superficial layer. Used as an emotional crutch halfway through the confrontation, the alcohol helps these characters release their tensions, shed their more superficial selves, and reveal the jealousy and darkness within. With each swallow comes a deeper revelation into the true colors of each character.
To many, Alan may be the most rational and real of the characters and, thus, the most relatable. He (as well as Michael, at times) admits to the absurdity of the couples’ confrontation. He recognizes that childhood skirmishes are normal occurrences, and he believes they thus do not warrant a contrived
meeting between parents, let alone a day off from work. Michael, too, takes on this more cynical yet realistic view of the world, when he states, “children consume our lives, then destroy them.” In this play, while the women take on a highly emotional, sensitive, overly involved state-of being, the men take on a more laid-back, rational worldview, perhaps indicative of real life stereotyped gender normative behavior.
One of the most hysterical (and disgusting) parts of the show occurs when Annette (Lacke) becomes so stressed and frustrated that she hurls, quite sporadically, onto the gleaming book table and all over her husband. Lacke’s ability to throw-up on stage seems incredibly real and provokes much laughter. Veronica’s consequent anger and franticness, as she takes her blow drier to clean off her
one-of-a-kind book collection, is just as fun to watch.
Many other dramatic and out-of-control moments occur throughout the performance. When Annette finally becomes fed-up with Allen’s persistent lack of attention to the situation at hand, she plunges his cell phone
into the vase of tulips. In another episode, Veronica ferociously attacks Michael on the couch after he repetitively refers to himself as a “fucking Neanderthal.” Veronica is so strong-willed in her desire to show the company her and her husband’s clean-cut image that she resorts to tackling to keep her husband’s crass mouth shut.
At the end, after Annette, in a fit of rage, demolishes Michael and Veronica’s living room by flinging the tulips and vases all over the floor, the audience finally realizes how deep into the dark abyss the characters have plunged. All four characters stand stunned and motionless. Annette states this is the “worst day” of her life, and the other characters concede through their silence. While perhaps among the year’s worst, this eventful day is likely also eye-opening and refreshing for the characters, as facets of their personality come out that have long been bottled up inside.
Veronica, Michael, Annette, and Allen are clearly exaggerated versions of real people in the world, and their pretext for convening is undoubtedly far-fetched. While the play’s humor relates most keenly to a more white privileged class audience due to the inherent subject matter and characters of the play, the revelations about human nature the play uncovers are relevant to all people.
Yazmena Reza and Rick Snyder deliver a witty, illuminative show that is a must-see around town.
Tickets to God of Carnage ($25 – $78) are currently on sale at GoodmanTheatre.org. Tickets and subscriptions can also be purchased at the box office (170 North Dearborn) or by phone at 312.443.3800. Performances are March 5 – April 10, 2011 in the Goodman’s Albert Theatre.
Photo credits to Eric Y. Exit