God of Carnage

by John Stoltenberg

The set foreshadows the coming fracas.  There’s a fault line down the middle where this living room seems sliced in two. And something’s out of whack. The halves do not align. Like two stressed tectonic plates beneath the surface predicting a quake any second, Matthew J. Keenan’s astute set design sets us on edge.

That’s just one instance of shrewd staging in Keegan Theatre’s smartly entertaining production of Yasmina Reza’s God of Carnage, a riotous free-for-all among four grownups. The setup is simple. In a playground spat between two eleven-year-old boys, Henry suffered minor injuries when Benjamin hit him in the mouth with a stick. Henry’s parents, Veronica and Michael (Lolita Marie and DeJeanette Horne) have invited over Benjamin’s parents, Annette and Alan (Susan Marie Rhea and Vishwas), in hopes of resolving things civilly. But as microaggressions mount, marital rifts emerge, and tempers flare, the adults begin bickering and brawling worse than kids behaving horridly. The play’s running joke is, as Annette says early on, that “parents standing up for their children become infantile themselves.”

Susan Marie Rhea (Annette) and Lolita Marie (Veronica) in ‘God of Carnage.’ Photo by Cameron Whitman

If there’s a Richter scale for hilarity, this show’s aghast guffaws would surely register. But the play also contains some intriguing serious bits: evolutionary/anthropological explanations for all the mayhem. Reza plants speculation after hypothesis about how humans’ savage instincts are never completely constrained by civilization, so they erupt like volcanic lava—respectable social graces be damned. That’s how I remember the play on Broadway some ten years ago: It played like a primitive, primal screaming match that left everyone hapless victims of something brutal embedded in culture and human nature. Curiously, there’s something comforting about that interpretation. It universalizes the idiotic “boys will be boys” trope into the equally idiotic “humans will be humans”—like a handy, all-purpose absolution of moral responsibility.

Veronica is the character who most vehemently argues against that predetermination:

VERONICA. I don’t see the point of existence without some kind of moral conception of the world…. I’m standing up for civilization! And it’s lucky there are people who are prepared to do that!

Lolita Marie’s standout performance as Veronica impressively gives that argument significant standing. But in Reza’s combative script, Veronica’s moral fervor fails, it persuades no one, and savagery wins the round.

Vishwas (Alan), DeJeanette Horne (Michael), and Lolita Marie (Veronica) in ‘God of Carnage.’ Photo by Cameron Whitman.

Director Shirley Serotsky has lent Reza’s play a more interesting and more relevant interpretation. Just as that fissure in the stage presages the hostility to come, Serotsky’s staging lets us see afresh the intrafamilial precursors of Benjamin’s and Henry’s tiff: This production pointedly highlights how the two husbands’ crude and rude sense of “virility” has been a longstanding exasperation for the wives, whose efforts to civilize them have been in vain:

ALAN. You know, speaking personally, my wife had to drag me here. When you’re brought up with a kind of John Wayne-ish idea of virility, you don’t want to settle this kind of problem with a lot of yakking. (Michael laughs.)

ANNETTE. I thought your model was Spartacus.

ALAN. Same family.

MICHAEL. Analogous.

VERONICA. Analogous! Are there no lengths you won’t go to to humiliate yourself, Michael?

If you’ve never seen God of Carnage, you should, it’s a modern comedy classic, and Keegan offers a superb chance to enjoy it. If you have seen the play and know the story, watch closely how Serotsky conducts who bickers and brawls with whom—couple versus couple, spouse versus spouse, women versus men, men versus women, Annette versus Veronica, Michael versus Alan… The conflict scenarios are ever-shifting and elide into one another. But what comes through loud and clear is that the antecedent of this anxious comedy is not human evolution in the ancient past. This is a completely contemporary comic parable about why two young apples have fallen not far from two trees.

Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.

God of Carnage plays through May 25, 2019, at the Keegan Theatre – 1742 Church Street, NW, in Washington DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 265-3767 or go online.

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