BWW Reviews: Dark Comedy GOD OF CARNAGE Slays in La Mirada
As the lights fade up to reveal a gorgeously-appointed luxe Brooklyn living room filled with accoutrements from a life well-lived (including various knick-knacks from travels abroad that, of course, hang neatly like art gallery installations), the opening scene of French playwright Yasmina Reza's Tony Award-winning play GOD OF CARNAGE sets up a serene and rather cordial conference between two pairs of well-to-do parents. Clearly uncomfortable in each others' presence, yet still forging ahead with their mutually-feigned diplomacy, each married couple have reluctantly agreed to come together to discuss the specifics of a rather nasty school yard altercation between their respective 11-year-old sons that occurred earlier that day.
As scenes go, it seems pretty ordinary enough. But, as it turns out---in increasingly hilarious results---these polite pleasantries don't last for long.
In actuality, all this graciousness and congeniality are merely a subtly-obscured smokescreen for their true feelings of anger, resentment, and loathing that are all just bubbling to a boil underneath their pretend smiles. And as the evening further progresses---and for the audiences' laugh-filled benefit---the foursome engage in a succession of increasingly ridiculous arguments which become so irrational and unfiltered, that they themselves eventually rumble like the little children they were originally trying to mediate.
To borrow a tagline from the long-running reality TV series The Real World, the wickedly amusing GOD OF CARNAGE shows exactly "what happens when people stop being polite... and start getting real." Well, at least, "real" in a comically over-the-top way, that is.
This outrageous farce---directed by Michael Arabian and featuring some top-notch, gusto-tinged performances from its four-person cast---continues its regional Southland performances at the La Mirada Theater for the Performing Arts through February 16.
Translated by Christopher Hampton from its French origins for the London and Broadway productions, the witty yet surprisingly rioutous GOD OF CARNAGE forces two affluent Alpha couples to come together in a tense-filled meeting neither pair wants, but civilized living certainly dictates. On one side of the divide is power-suited couple Alan (Jamison Jones), a smarmy "big-pharma" lawyer and his uptight wife Annette (Amy Sloan), whose obscure career has something to do with "wealth management." They're here visiting the high-priced home of wholesale goods peddler Michael (Hugo Armstrong) and his control-freak author wife Veronica (Maura Vincent) who is currently homebound writing her latest book, this time about the struggles of the people in the Western Sudanese region of Darfur.
While Michael and Hugo have clearly gone out of their way to welcome their visitors like gracious hosts (the specially-purchased fresh tulips and their exotic dessert offering both serve to impress and entice), Alan and Annette would rather be anywhere but here.
Unfortunately, there is much to discuss. The topic at hand: earlier in the day, Benjamin---Alan and Annette's son---has an argument with Henry---Michael and Veronica's son---because Henry refused Benjamin's request to join Henry's "gang." The refusal angered Benjamin enough to hit Henry violently with a stick, knocking out two of Henry's teeth. With their impromptu meeting, both sets of parents hope to come to a fair resolution to the conflict (even though, ahem, one child required stitches).
But, alas, when you get two couples with such strong, opinionated personalities together---all vying for dominance and bragging rights---any kind of mutually agreed resolution seems far-fetched. As their unyielding tête-à-tête stretches into the night, the gloves start to come off and comments turn more personal and, well, ugly. Pretty soon, what started as restrained annoyance soon degenerates into full-on, on-the-floor brawls peppered with cringe-inducing insults and even prejudicial statements.
Yikes. So, uh... these are grown folks, right?
An obvious commentary on the social ills that waft from the pores of upwardly-mobile people, GOD OF CARNAGE amusingly postulates that underneath the designer-clad, well-mannered facades comfortably-wealthy people put on are layers upon layers of irrational thoughts, ugly behavior, and, yes, even repressed immaturity. Their unapologetic shallowness is sometimes even shockingly too over-the-top. The play then, in essence, mines most of its comedy by showing how quickly "civilized" people can become downright "savage."
Upon hearing that his son even had a "gang" Michael actually exudes a sense of pride; later---in one of the funniest lines of the play---he rips off his stodgy sweater in protest of his ornery guests, subsequently blaming his wife for the extra step of dressing him "like a liberal." For his part, Alan---in a running gag throughout the play---repeatedly interrupts the meeting by answering his mobile phone barking orders to his associates trying to protect his pharmaceutical client from an impending lawsuit (it so happens Michael's aging mother is on the same risky medication Alan is trying to protect). For their part, the two mothers are as acidic in their own ways---Annette for her carefully chosen words and carefully chosen shoes, and Veronica in her obsessive attentiveness to her material possessions (rarities, natch).
Though, to be fair... sure, it's possible these four characters do genuinely care about the welfare of their children in some demented way, but, good lord, when all is said and done---these are, frankly, horrible, horrible people. They are so concerned about how they are materially-swathed and socially-tiered that, ha!, civility be damned.
And do I feel a little bad that I found it all quite funny? Oh, hell, no. (Does it make me feel better about myself watching these people? Um, yeah. I admit, it did a little).
Despite its theatrical pedigree and its 2009 Tony win for Best Play, I purposely went into La Mirada's top-notch production as a first-timer without any research into its plot or setting so that I can come in fresh and untainted by expectations. And I am so glad that I did. (Though, in hindsight, I am sad that I inexplicably missed the play's Los Angeles transfer a couple of years ago at the Ahmanson Theatre that featured the play's original Broadway foursome: Tony nominees Hope Davis, Jeff Daniels, the late James Gandolfini, and Tony winner Marcia Gay Harden).
The play, for all its despicable behavior on display, is such a total laugh-filled surprise---in that I had no prior inkling that my laughter would emanate not so much from its keen wit but, rather, its unbridled ridiculousness. (There's even a rather, um, out-of-nowhere explosive moment---which I won't spoil for those that haven't seen the play---that caught me so off-guard, I was laughing in tears).
Though, to be sure, a play about terrible people behaving terribly probably would not be as funny if not for the no-holds-barred performances required by the actors portraying such characters. As Alan and Annette, respectively, Jones is perfectly pompous while Sloan is effectively hoity-toity and holier-than-thou. They provide such wonderfully uptight counterparts for Armstrong's new-moneyed Michael and Vincent's cackling firecracker Veronica. Armstrong and Vincent prove to be slightly more particular standouts only because their characters had seemingly more layers to unravel (when their characters finally begin to shed some of their feigned pretenses for their guests, the two feel as though they've literally shed masks and have transformed).
But I can only imagine what a treat it must be for all four actors to embody such viscerally exaggerated characters and to play them with varying degrees of subtlety and madness.
Also worth applauding: the play's fifth character---that high-priced apartment set designed by John Iacovelli and lit by Brian Gale. If Veronica and Michael want others to envy their stylish surroundings, well, congratulations... it worked (I just hoped they were able to sanitize that coffee table and rug after that mid-show "event").
While I admit, there were a few scenes that made me cringe and recoil more than laugh---only because perhaps such behavior seems severely unimaginable---I feel that the play is ultimately a comical triumph despite becoming an overextended joke by the time the bamboo rods become weapons rather than decorations. But more than anything else, GOD OF CARNAGE reminds us all that it is still what's on the inside that counts. And thank goodness most of us still exercise internal filters.
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Photos from the McCoy Rigby Entertainment presentation of GOD OF CARNAGE by Michael Lamont. From top: Michael (Hugo Armstrong) and wife Veronica (Maura Vincent) try to dry off their antique manuscripts; Michael (left, seated) gets an earful from Annette (Amy Sloan) while husband Alan (Jamison Jones) looks on; sharing initial laughs -- Alan (Jones) and Veronica (Vincent, seated), Michael (seated) and Annette (Sloan).
Performances of GOD OF CARNAGE presented by McCoy-Rigby Entertainment at The La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts in La Mirada, CA continue through Sunday, February 16, 2014. The La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts is located at 14900 La Mirada Boulevard. Parking is free.
For tickets visit www.LaMiradaTheatre.com or call (562) 944-9801 or (714) 994-6310.