First, note the order in this living room: the artfully spaced and angled furniture, the carefully stacked pillows on the floor and large art books on and under the coffee table, the green fruit filling the silver bowl, the white tulips arranged in the crystal vase, the lurid crimson floor with every inch buffed to a reflective sheen. Everything here is so just so. Take all that in, for just as sure as the gun that brother Chekhov brings on in act one will be fired in act three, this order you see when the lights come up on God of Carnage will degenerate into chaos before the lights go down.
Yes, Yasmina Reza's latest hit is all about the mess. If you thought this European playwright made a wreck of that white-on-white abstract painting in her previous success, Art, you ain't, as they say, seen nothin' yet. Books get trashed, flowers get thrown, and someone's lunch gets hurled over almost every surface – all at the hands of four ostensibly civilized adults. Two sets of parents have come together in this orderly (and decidedly upscale) setting to resolve the issues around a playground attack by the son of one couple upon the son of the other, and what begins with the politesse and painstakingly parsed language of a diplomatic negotiation at the U.N. degrades into the hissy fits, pity parties, and snotty put-downs of their 11 year olds' playground in less time than it takes fresh fish to spoil. And that's Reza's point: to show how swiftly our veneer of propriety crumbles when we're provoked, how even the most "evolved" of us instinctively revert to the aggression and insensitive behavior of barbarians. The play is little more than that rapid descent from order into chaos, but like that first long drop on a roller coaster, it offers a gleeful thrill.
Reza has seeded her squabbling parents with just enough character flaws – a little self-absorption here, a little arrogance there, this one's belittling wit, that one's smooth smugness – that when they start trading blows, we take pleasure in seeing the insufferable suffer. It takes a skilled cast, though, to mine such flaws for humor and make their hostility and humiliation the stuff of hilarity. All four actors in Zach Theatre's staging inflate their characters' shortcomings to that precise point of pomposity to trigger eye-rolling laughter and lash out at one another and respond when struck with such comic dexterity as to leave the crowd howling. You're hard-pressed to determine whose downfall is funnier. It's quite a hoot to see Lauren Lane's Veronica, the supercilious art historian with the self-consciously velvet voice of an NPR radio host, literally brought to her knees, forced to scramble under the coffee table and made to bawl like a second-grader not picked for the kick ball team. But what about Angela Rawna's Annette, the dutifully mousy spouse with darting eyes whose lids lower to half-mast and whose demeanor loosens into rib-tickling tipsiness after she downs half a bottle of top-shelf rum? There's Eugene Lee's Alan, the growling bull mastiff of an attorney who gratingly answers every cell phone call from his pharmaceutical masters in crisis before going all chest-thumping truth-teller on the rest, but there's also Thomas Ward's Michael, Veronica's almost exasperatingly laid-back husband whose good humor curdles into a sour boorishness that provokes you to laugh in spite of yourself. These performers are as well-matched as the members of a first-class string quartet and play off one another with expertise; they handle the constantly shifting allegiances among the four – the script's biggest and most delightful surprise – like ensemble members passing a musical theme around. And guest director Matt Lenz orchestrates their performances – and the collapse of this microcosm of civilization – like a maestro, keeping the tempo quick and the sound bright.
This God of Carnage is a brisk, exhilarating ride downhill, but when you reach the bottom, you may feel an emptiness in the pit of your stomach. Reza resolves nothing: not the couples' fractured marriages, not the hidden feelings that have been exposed, and certainly not the fate of the sons, whose absence from any talk at the end of the play suggests they were never that important to the parents to begin with. What we have is the mess – not merely the mess on designer Michael Raiford's exquisite set but also the mess that comes from people allowing the bonds of civility and society to decay. Reza may consider her job done after she punctures the self-satisfaction of the bourgeoisie, but perhaps we ought to consider the larger ramifications that she doesn't. There's a cautionary tale here, one worth attending to in this era of political gridlock and demagoguery. If we don't maintain that societal commitment to reason together, to cooperate, to compromise, what will be left?
Copyright © 2021 Austin Chronicle Corporation. All rights reserved.