To say that the four characters in Yasmina Reza’s God of Carnage (currently playing at Signature Theatre) are vile is an understatement. They casually surf the spectrum between unpleasant and unspeakably loathsome, whether sentencing hamsters to death, swigging rum, or destroying one another’s personal property (think BlackBerrys drowned, flowers thrown across the stage, and books ruined in a way so disgustingly realistic it needs to be seen to be believed).
Of course, these people are also much more than just disgusting human beings. They’re us, or as close an approximation to the educated, upper-middle-class everyman-and-wife as it’s possible to see onstage. Forced into a situation that obliges them to confront violence, they descend rapidly into Lord of the Flies-esque chaos, becoming puerile, violent specters of themselves. And in this Signature production, directed by Joe Calarco, it’s riveting to watch.
Carnage (recently made into a star-studded film by Roman Polanski) features two sets of parents obliged to meet after a violent confrontation between their sons. Veronica (Naomi Jacobson) and Michael Novak (Andy Brownstein) welcome Alan (Paul Morella) and Annette Raleigh (Vanessa Lock) into their home after the Raleighs' son hits theirs in the face with a stick, knocking out two teeth (in classic, lawyer-like fashion, there's a lengthy discussion about whether the kid was "armed" with said stick or merely "furnished" with it). Although the evening starts out as genteelly as you like, something about being backed into corners to defend their children brings out the primal instinct in the two mothers, exacerbated by alcohol, rage, and the incessant ringing of Alan's BlackBerry.
Amid the immaculate confines of the Novaks' Cobble Hill home, the descent into well, carnage, is surprising, to say the least. But Reza's characters are models of folly in their own way. Corporate lawyer Alan, who defends crooked pharmaceutical companies, is the embodiment of greed; his wife, Annette, gracefully decked out in a suit and heels, goes all gluttonous after a sip or two of the Novaks' imported rum. Veronica, who frequently flips into tantrums, seems to personify anger, while her slovenly husband, too lazy to find a home for their daughter's beloved hamster, merely tips it out onto the street. There are clues studded throughout the play as to the characters's dark sides: Both Annette and Veronica declare themselves to be fans of the grisly painter Francis Bacon, Alan refers to his wife by the animalistic nickname Woof-Woof, and Veronica is working on a book about the atrocities in Darfur.
The actors in this production are unanimously strong, but Morella is exceptional as the hollow, craven Alan: toward the end of the show, he sinks to a sitting position and remains there, his face a picture of empty tragedy. What drives the characters to go on with their joyless lives is never really expressed, but the desolation of the Raleighs' marriage is haunting. Calarco amps up the tension, punctuated by Alan's constantly ringing phone, to a nail-biting conclusion, made all the more pointed by James Kronzer's all-too-familiar set. These people collect photography, one finds oneself thinking. They read poetry. How can they possibly be such monsters?
But monsters they are, albeit terribly funny ones. Reza's black humor, in devastating form in this Pulitzer-winning play, is what saves this play from tipping over into Armageddon. Staged fights between the couples are vividly, physically amusing, while each character has his or her own brand of meaningless piffle to expound ("He realizes what he's done," says Annette of her precious bundle of joy. "He just doesn't understand the implications"). As portraits of the dark side of humanity, these characters are alarmingly realistic. But they're also unbelievably fun to watch.
God of Carnage is at Signature Theatre through June 24. Tickets ($67 to $79) are available through Ticketmaster, or via Signature's website.