In playwright Yasmina Reza’s “God of Carnage,” at the Alliance Theatre through February 4, two upper-middle-class couples meet in a fancy living room to discuss a recent fight between their children on the playground. What begins as an ostensibly civilized, logical discussion ends up as an emotionally barbarous, bare-knuckle fight for dominance.
In spite of all the acclaim it has garnered in previous productions (it started out in Paris and won a boatload of awards in London and New York), “Carnage” is still a pretty middling script, plainly derivative of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”
The main characters of “Woolf,” though brutal, are admirable in their unflinching desire to find and live with the truth, even if it means stripping away the last shreds of comforting illusion. The characters in “God of Carnage” live with a rather smug veneer of civilization, and Reza can imagine only an off-the-shelf version: these characters are made of expensive rum, clafouti, tulips, Bluetooth, fancy art books and not much more. They’re paper-thin cutouts of someone’s notion of upper-middle-class coupledom, propped up on stage when we’re longing to see real people.
Seeing the cruelty and savagery underneath the tulips and clafouti isn’t shocking either; in fact, it’s all sort of expected (you know it’s what you’re going to see when you walk into the theater), and it never gets quite as brutal as we’re supposed to believe it is. The copy has lost the sharpness, cruelty and wit of the original.
The script’s problems aren’t helped by the Alliance’s production, which plays up the farcical elements. The play desperately needs more particularities, and because they’re lacking, the actors need to bring human individuality, not broad character types, to the parts. Instead, this show goes for easy laughs and simple shocks: physical humor, silly dances, cutting comebacks, and there’s even a vomiting gag. Played as situation comedy, the script’s slight substance further dissipates.
Reza does manage some sharp observations about the way the characters shift allegiances as the gloves come off. The women line up against the men, then the couples realign against each other, then it’s every man for himself, and so on. But watching for the delicate effects of such shifts is like trying to discern the strains of a classical quartet during a hurricane. Things are too broad and boisterous for us to be able to enjoy something so subtle. More blame lies with Reza than with the skillful cast: they deserve better material approached more contemplatively.
In the end, the characters are so thinly drawn that we don’t much care when we see them collapse. A city has to look real — we have to care about it a bit and imagine ourselves living there — in order to feel something when we see it destroyed. If Tokyo looks like cardboard, we’ll just laugh when Godzilla stomps through.
“God of Carnage” is essentially a comic sketch, to which the playwright tries to tack on a bit of sociological observation to dress it up a bit. The action is supposedly tied to a larger vision of a cruel, dog-eat-dog world. It doesn’t amount to much, and the conceit barely covers the fact that there’s something unintentionally very cynical and empty at the heart of “God of Carnage.”