'God of Carnage' questions civility in urbane American society
Theatre in the Grove's current offering, "God of Carnage," is a beautiful (but not pretty) and hilarious (but not always fun) piece of theater that inhabits a grey area between "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" and "Married with Children."
This vision of marriage is softened only by author Yasmina Reza's incessant dark humor — the sort of show where you don't really know whether to laugh or cry, but come down on the side of laughter (and feel a bit guilty about it).
Director Zach Centers is no stranger to gut-punching theater, and I still have flashes of PTSD four years after he brought "August, Osage County" to Forest Grove, but he and his cast find in Carnage a much less painful way to celebrate the savage potential of urbane American society.
The plot is secondary — just a set-up to bring the cast together to illustrate what four people can do with a sparse, sharp script and some really brilliant acting.
Brooklyn residents Michael and Veronica Novak are hosting an awkwardly civilized meeting with neighbors Alan and Annette Raleigh to discuss an unfortunate incident — a disagreement between their 11-year-old sons that culminated in the Raleigh boy whacking young Novak with a stick, knocking out a couple of teeth.
The two women are, at first, determined to have a reasonable discussion about how they should respond. Through facial expressions, tone of voice and exquisite timing, we gradually detect hostile undercurrents that fight their way to the surface as the show evolves.
Bleeding-heart Veronica just wants everything to resolve with a kumbaya moment of sincere apology in a meeting between the two boys, while Alan, convinced that his son is an unrepentant savage, sees no point in trying.
Annette, like Veronica, initially aims at civility, and Michael, while a bit crass, seems to have some human potential until we learn about an unfortunate hamster-related tragedy.
Alliances constantly shift throughout the show, and as the cast moves from espresso and clafouti to rum and cigars, they show us exactly who they are.
What begins as two couples confident that their spouses have their backs ends up as an exposé of the dog-eat-dog character of their marriages and lives, ruled more by a god of carnage than a god of love.
Tori Lee Scoles is quite wonderful as the initially nervous Annette, who murmurs all of the right sentiments while her eyes send death-rays of contempt at her hostess (who puts apples and pears in clafouti?) and her disengaged, cell-phone addicted ass of a spouse — and she's even more fun when the rum kicks in.
Benjamin Philip's Alan is the man we most love to hate — a snide, disengaged "wealth manager" who has offloaded all responsibility for home and parenting on his wife. Even before we see the cell phone, he is clearly despicable, and his frequent phone interruptions of the group's discussion reveal a fundamental vileness that goes way beyond poor manners.
Kate Barrett brings a hefty dose of self-righteous confidence to her portrayal of Veronica, occupying the moral high ground across the spectrum of human interaction from schoolyard spats to genocide in Darfur. Barrett captures the spirit of her comfortably suburban pacifist humanism until a little rum and a lot of anger finally push her over the edge, and her explosion is intensely believable. Brandon Weaver gives husband Michael a sometimes-dizzying combination of blue-collar machismo, clumsy upscale snobbery and appalling heartlessness, all leavened with unpredictable touches of tenderness and concern that keep the audience off balance and remind us that the world is far from black and white.
Centers has designed a stunningly spare set; just a few pieces of furniture, a spectacular floor and one huge abstract painting, combining smartly civilized décor with a background of red and black splashes to capture the dichotomy between order and chaos. Lighting designers Sandy and Tom Cronin deliver an incredible moment at the end, spotlighting just the vase of tulips to bring a flash of hope to the show's grim message.
"God of Carnage" delivers some of the best acting you'll see this season, wrapped in a compelling show that builds steadily and combines raw humor with a thought-provoking look at "civilized" behavior.
Expect to be utterly riveted for slightly less than an hour and a half (one long act).
Because of mature themes and strong language, the show is not appropriate for children.
"God of Carnage" runs at Forest Grove's Theatre in the Grove through Sunday, Jan. 28, with performances at 7:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday and 2:30.