Spending an evening with the two couples at the heart of God of Carnage is a little like having drinks with George and Martha, the battling couple who set the gold standard for marital melt downs in Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? We immediately sense that all is not well with the Raleighs and the Novaks. What takes a minute longer for us to realize is that maybe all is not as well with us as we hoped it might be. To our surprise, we may see something of ourselves in their earnest efforts to respond appropriately to a playground conflict between their children that escalated into physical violence. We watch nervously, maybe even laughing a little, as their carefully cultivated civility quickly degenerates into escalating psychic violence that pits one against the other in an ever shifting landscape of attacks and alliances where no one can be sure from which direction the next barb might be launched. By the end of the play, when the two exhausted couples are about to go their separate ways, a good whack in the face with a playground stick seems perhaps the lesser of two evils.
With dialogue as brittle as it is familiar, playwright Yasmina Reza captures the deep sense of alienation and unease that lies just beneath the carefully controlled surfaces of the character’s lives. These are people who can chatter on and on about the secret ingredient that makes an unforgettable clafouti, but who seem clueless about what it takes to be a good parent, a good husband, a good wife, a loving son or a responsible, engaged citizen of the planet. The play draws its characters slowly into the terrifying realization that they are not who they thought they were, or even who they wanted others to believe they might be. Their most intimate relationships are shown to be hollow, poisoned by things unsaid and conflicts unresolved. The idea that their children, spoken about but never seen, are independent creatures who form gangs and fight for status and position among their peers as ruthlessly as any adults, seems not to have occurred to either set of parents until the moment we see them arguing passionately that the kids are savages or saints, with no possible shades of grey in between.
With increasing desperation, Veronica Novak argues for “the possibility of improvement,” as the four turn on each other with an unexpected ferocity that leads finally to the drowning of a cell phone that is practically a fifth character and the destruction of an innocent bouquet of tulips, bought from the Korean deli down the street with such high hopes and then dashed to the living room floor with a watery splash and the shattering of glass. We listen to a last-ditch attempt to reassure a heartbroken child that life is not as cruel as she suspects it may be after the death of her pet hamster under suspicious circumstances. But after watching Yasmina Reza’s brilliant play, we may find ourselves suspecting that in the face of “the god of carnage,” the child may be closer to the truth than we would like to admit.
I have only experienced this play in the pages of the printed script. The voices of these desperate people have only existed inside my head, so I have awaited this production with great anticipation. I have admired the work of Crystal Fox and Jasmine Guy over many years, including their amazing performances in three of my own plays. Keith Randolph Smith and Geoffrey Darnell Williams are among the most talented actors working in the American theatre today. I have no doubt that the members of this ensemble will push each other, and those of us who are privileged to watch them, as close to the truth as we can stand. And then just a little closer.
God of Carnage will play the Alliance Theatre from Jan. 11-29.
Pearl Cleage is the Alliance Theatre’s playwright in residence and author of several novels and plays, including What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day, Flyin’ West and The Nacirema Society Requests the Honor of Your Presence at a Celebration of Their First One Hundred Years.