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Theater Review: "God of Carnage" at Signature Theatre

This riveting black comedy reveals the ease with which humans can descend into chaos.

Naomi Jacobson and Paul Morella in God of Carnage at Signature Theatre. Photograph by Scott Suchman

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
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
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.