Crossed Lines

Despite Signature's admirable effort, the somber notes of this French play on playground bullying lose something

As a piece arriving in the midst of a chattering class that has not only discovered the joy and angst of parenthood but also the new media with which to talk about it, Yasmina Reza’s God of Carnage is an ”it” play. Urbane, funny and appropriately fraught, it is a clever mirror held up at just the right angle to allow as much self-recognition as it does amused disdain.

Yet as a foray into the familiar theme that, despite our pretence of civilized decorum, social chaos is always a mere hair’s breadth away, the piece never quite delivers on the promise. For though Reza is a fine observer of the 21st century bourgeoisie, along with their general state of agitation, a greater insight into what ails eludes her. Though her characters, at moments of clarity, may reflect gravely on their state of ”unhappiness,” if there is a ”why” (beyond bad manners, crappy marriages and the neuroticism of the overeducated and under-engaged) it is far too deeply buried in the sparring and acting out.

Sudden eruptions: Jacobson and Morella

Sudden eruptions: Jacobson and Morella

(Photo by Scott Suchman)

Still, timing is everything. Hence a Broadway run and a Polanski film.

And, without doubt, Signature’s production. It’s a fast-paced, occasionally rowdy, occasionally grim, American-adapted version, something of an educated-crowd pleaser, if for nothing else but the premise. Set in a condo living room aspiring to good taste, two couples, the Novaks and the Raleighs, meet to discuss an incident in which the Raleigh’s young son has hit the Novak’s son while at a local park. As the couples awkwardly vie for what they want, tempers begin to flare, neuroticisms surface and, when the alcohol flows, volcanic emotions erupt. By afternoon’s end, gender and parenting battles have raged and marital angers and disappointments have been aired.

Succeeding here are strong characterizations and an ensemble working hard to keep it real and engaging. And this is no small task. As astute and funny as some of Reza’s observations may be and as much as one may wonder, gleefully, where it will all end, the failure of the Raleighs to simply remove themselves from the rapidly devolving situation becomes a distraction. Whether one calls it a touch of Waiting for Godot-esque Theatre of the Absurd or booze-based silliness as dramatic device, the skill it takes the cast to carry this off cannot be overstated.

Striking the perfect balance between comic and credible is a brilliant Naomi Jacobson as Veronica Novak. Mother of the boy who has been injured, Jacobson captures with perfect pitch the tense restraint of one who has already made up their mind about the kind of parents who could have raised such a perpetrator. Despite Reza’s narrow exploration and director Joe Calarco’s emphasis on the play’s potential for physical comedy, Jacobson is the only actor who delivers any sense of the confusion and despair that may lurk beneath the conflict.

GOD OF CARNAGE
starstarstar
To June 24
Signature Theatre
4200 Campbell Ave.
Arlington
$65-$70
703-820-9711
signature-theatre.org

Looking effectively perpetually stricken, Vanessa Lock gives her highly strung Annette Raleigh strong presence, but there is little she can do with Reza’s failure to show us more. And though her nausea is as convincing as it is symbolic, her eventual, if brief, alliance with Veronica isn’t. As her husband, Alan, Paul Morella creates a nicely drawn demi-cad though his cell-phone style lacks the casual inevitability displayed by the true addict. Finally, Andy Brownstein gives his Michael Novak convincing moments as a long-suffering husband and exudes well the working-class man-made-good.

Still, even with these recognizable East Coast types, there remains a palpably European sensibility in both Reza’s writing and Calarco’s pacing. Whether it is in the indirect way the characters emote or the quiet lapses found only in cultures far more comfortable with silence, there is a rhythm that is distinctly un-American. This alone would be no cause for concern (and might even be celebrated) except that here, it argues. And in such intimate confines, it argues loudly. Indeed, Reza herself acknowledges that adaptations have altered the play’s tone, with the Parisian version being described as somber and the American comic. Yet if a play is to be this organic, it must have a resonance that survives cultural translation. Though God of Carnage entertains and, at its best, provokes some thought, Reza needed to wield a far bigger stick.

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