God of Carnage swings between extremes
By Yasmina Reza. Translated by Christopher Hampton. Directed by Miles Potter. A coproduction of Vancouver Civic Theatres and the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre. At the Vancouver Playhouse on Thursday, April 19. Continues until May 5
Call me old-fashioned, but I prefer it when comedies make me laugh. In director Miles Potter’s production, God of Carnage didn’t.
Yasmina Reza’s script, which won the Olivier Award for London’s best new comedy of 2009, shows us two couples. Alan and Annette’s 11-year-old son has bashed Michael and Veronica’s 11-year-old boy with a stick, damaging two of his teeth. Both sets of parents meet in Michael and Veronica’s upscale Brooklyn home to discuss the matter, believing in an affirmative answer to Veronica’s rhetorical question: “There is still such a thing as the art of coexistence, isn’t there?” But we know where things are going.
Playwright Reza swoops between the high and the low. Her opinionated characters sometimes speak in self-conscious abstractions: Veronica declares, “I am standing up for civilization.” But Reza’s obvious point is that civilization is a veneer, and much of the play’s humour comes from the release of the animal and visceral; you’ve got to love a little on-stage puking.
I find the terms of Reza’s dialectic suspect, however. As the four characters battle and change allegiances, Reza spends a fair bit of time with the men fighting the women. The terms of that engagement are stereotypical. “When a woman cries, a man is immediately provoked to the worst excesses,” Alan, the corporate lawyer, declares. Predictably, men are presented as obsessed with gadgets and cigars. This battle-of-the-sexes setup feels like the oldest joke in the world, and it’s a joke this homo has never found funny or accurate.
In having Veronica be an author writing a book about “the tragedy in Darfur”, Reza evokes horrific suffering and, in a way, makes a joke of it: Michael refers to the “coons” that his wife is so fond of. If the comedy had more depth, this might feel justified, but director Potter’s production has little depth.
That’s partly because the acting is uneven. Especially in the early going, the men—Oliver Becker’s Michael and John Cassini’s Alan—feel like real people, but the women—Shauna Black’s Veronica and Vickie Papavs’s Annette—are clearly on-stage. Black and Papavs holler and overact, when they should be starting off subtly, giving themselves somewhere to go. Papavs in particular tips her hand, anticipating the farcical scale that should be saved till later.
The crushingly familiar chic of Gillian Gallow’s set—the pale wood, the marble, the white modernist furniture—slyly implicates many in the audience, and the animal hides on the floor speak to the characters’ Neanderthal natures. That said, the set emphasizes the superficial, and doesn’t dare to stick its hands deep into the play’s guts—assuming those guts exist.