A Negotiated Unsettlement
By Tom Wachunas
“Madness, as you know, is like gravity. All it takes is a little push.” – Heath Ledger as The Joker, from the film The Dark Knight -
God of Carnage, the 2009 Tony Award-winning play by French playwright Yasmina Reza, is a dark comedy about how easily our elaborate facades of social civility and domestic harmony (the comedy) can be utterly wrecked by our apparently instinctual readiness for rage (the dark). After seeing the production at the Players Guild Fry Theater on opening night, the beginning lyrics of Paul Simon’s Everything Put Together Falls Apart haunted my drive home, popping into my head in a constant loop: “Paraphernalia never hides your broken bones…” In retrospect, it seems a more apropos if less ironic choice of theme song than Sinatra’s Love and Marriage, which the audience hears just prior to the opening scene.
Presented by Seat of the Pants Productions in cooperation with the recently formed Parallax Theatre Ensemble, the play was directed by Craig Joseph, who assembled a superbly gifted ensemble cast of four: Melissa Brobeck, Moriah Ophardt, Johnny Russell, and Brian Scharfenberg.
The story begins amicably enough as one married couple, Alan and Annette, visit the Brooklyn, New York apartment of another couple, Michael and Veronica, to discuss what to do about a recent altercation in the park between their young sons. Veronica, whose son lost a few teeth at the stick-weilding hands of Annette’s boy, is looking for some form of graceful atonement as she purrs, “Fortunately, there is still such a thing as the art of co-existence, isn’t there?” That’s red flag number one of many to follow.
And what follows is indeed a relentless progression from the smoldering, low sparks of well- heeled Brooklyn grownups into an explosive disintegration of exemplary adult behavior. It’s a good thing their boys weren’t present to witness their appalling devolution into feral attack mode - far worse than any playground bickering. Rest assured there were no time-outs or group hugs here.
The philosophical underpinnings of this play are so entrenched in cynicism that the story itself becomes practically secondary and largely predictable. I felt the same way about the 2011 film adaptation, Carnage (directed by Roman Polanski). But where the film seemed to never get beyond the level of a gloomy cartoon, Craig Joseph’s directing here lets the satirical narrative rise above mere caricature into a more visceral reality, equal parts raucous humor and unsettling honesty. In turn, all the cast members bring deliciously nuanced subtlety and credibility to their roles – often wickedly so.
Their collective decline from genteel demeanor to vitriolic fractiousness is wholly riveting. Melissa Brobeck’s Veronica, with perpetually superficial smile , is a sanctimonious culture maven who becomes as unglued as her precious coffee table art books when “wealth manager” Annette, played by Moriah Ophardt - cool, bemused and restrained early in the proceedings - pukes on them. The gloves really come off when Michael (Brian Scharfenberg), at first endearingly nervous and conciliatory despite Veronica’s whiny badgering, breaks out the booze for everyone, at one point drunkenly declaring, “Chidren consume our lives and then destroy them.” And all during this caustic foray into finger-pointing, exposed hypocrisies and abandoned dignity, corporate lawyer Alan (Johnny Russell), patronizing and arrogant, is incessantly taking business calls on his cell phone. Somewhere in between these self-absorbed distractions, he barks to Veronica, “…I believe in the god of carnage, who has ruled uninterrupted since the dawn of time.”
In that case, it’s not unreasonable to think of this play as Yasmina Reza’s call to “worship” that god. Not with pleas for mercy, though. Neither with praise nor even tears for the world he rules. Laughter, either weary or frenzied, will suffice.
God of Carnage, in the Fry Theater, Players Guild of Canton, 1001 Market Avenue N., Canton, Ohio / shows at 8:00 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 2 and Saturday Nov. 3 / 2:00 p.m. on Sunday, Nov. 4 / Cast Post-Show Talkback on Saturday / TICKETS $15 / www.translationsart.com/godofcarnage
PHOTOS: Cast of God of Carnage – Top, left-to-right: Brian Scharfenberg, Moriah Ophardt, Johnny Russell, Melissa Brobeck