BWW Reviews: American Stage's GOD OF CARNAGE Presents Tulips and Tumult
I used to work at a hotel and if I got a nickel for every time I had to say "I'm sorry," I would've put in my notice and moved to my remote island three months into my employment. In the hospitality industry, much like most forms of customer service, the client is always right. Even if their claim was pure fiction, I was to nod sympathetically and apologize on behalf of myself and the staff. I rarely meant it. At a certain point "I'm sorry" lost all meaning. The words would slide off my tongue all too quickly. I was a broken vending machine of apologies. I was a liar.
So, does an apology mean anything if there is no genuine goodwill behind it? If the recipient of the apology is unaware of the apathy behind it, is there any harm? What if the people involved are eleven year olds? Should they know better? What if they're full grown adults with jobs, suede saddle shoes and drinking problems?
The notion of consciously claiming responsibility versus just accepting blame is one of many recurring motifs in American Stage Theatre Company's production of "God of Carnage," which previewed last night to a full house. At the start of Yasmina Reza's play, we join a gathering already in progress. We are looking into the living room of Veronica and Michael Novak, whose son, Henry, has had two of his teeth knocked out by Benjamin, the son of Annette and Alan Raleigh. The parents have come together in order to discuss the altercation and to come to an agreement regarding how the boys should form a truce.
Kids fight. Kids get hurt. They apologize and move on. Here we have two pairs of parents rationally discussing the situation, and on the surface this is a logical, almost boring premise. But Reza's play, impeccably directed by Karla Hartley, aims to destroy the façade of civility initially presented by the four characters on stage.
Veronica Novak (Cathy Schenkelberg) is passive aggressive and pretentious. Everything from her clafouti recipe modifications, to her irreplaceable art books insight both laughter and eye rolls. It is Veronica who first points out the difference between having a child say he's sorry, versus having him understand the consequences of his actions and actually being sorry. She is vocal about her ideas on raising and disciplining children, even if they aren't hers.
Though initially on friendly(ish) terms, this is one personality trait that often puts her at odds with Alan Raleigh (Billy Edwards), Benjamin's father. Though he is the first to characterize his son as a "savage," he finds the idea of this mediation to be a waste of time; time better spent answering his cell phone that goes off for most of the play. He takes exception to her judgment of his parenting, and her use of the word "armed" when referring to the stick Benjamin used to hit Henry. The action is less important than the perceived hostility of the word. With Veronica and Alan, it often becomes a writer versus lawyer in a humorous battle of semantics.
Initially on board for finding a peaceful resolution for the boys, Annette Raleigh (Katherine Michelle Tanner) asks, "How many parents sticking up for their children become infantile themselves?" She inadvertently foreshadows the further breakdown of etiquette. Veronica's opinionated nature also pushes Annette to a rather repulsive point.
Matthew Novak (Brian Shea) starts out seeming as though he'd have a calming influence over the group. However, his frequent tangents onto things like his childhood "gang days" hint at something more indelicate hiding below his serene exterior. One could even argue that he's the worst of the lot. Just ask his daughter.
The advertisements for the show herald "the ultimate comedy of manners without manners," but that statement does nothing to prepare you for one 90 minute act of [mostly] unadulterated madness. Couple versus couple. Annette versus Veronica. Michael versus Alan. Alan versus Annette. Michael versus Veronica. Everyone fights with everyone; misogynistic, racist, homophobic slurs, plants, and purses are thrown. No one is either innocent or safe.
I find it difficult to comment on any one actor's performance, because nothing felt like a "performance." Soon after the start, I was lost in the story of four strangers. I feel that this, in a way, speaks volumes about their ability to showcase characters with chameleon-like authenticity. Edwards, Tanner, Schenkelberg, and Shea took on their characters with such realism that you may hate them all by night's end. Or perhaps you'll see a bit of yourself in them, and isn't that a scary notion?
At one point Michael says that "no one tells you anything [about marriage] when you start out." An audience member behind me said aloud, "You've got that right." A few of us laughed at her vocal empathy. I heard her say she was "sorry" and I couldn't help but wonder how solid her marriage was.
Photo Credit: Chad Jacobs
By Yasmina Reza; translated by Christopher Hampton; directed by Karla Hartley. At American Stage Theatre Company, 163 3rd Street North St. Petersburg, Florida; (727) 823-PLAY (7529). Through August 10.