In the central monologue of Yasmina Reza’s “God of Carnage,” Alan Raleigh asks, “Are we ever interested in anything but ourselves?” Opening last Friday, the Four County Players adaptation of the award-winning play purposefully refuses to answer that question, but does provide plenty of food for thought.
Set in the living room of a young, middle-upper-class family, the story involves a discussion between two couples about a violent playground incident between their two sons. As tensions mount, diplomatic niceties give way to verbal and physical assaults. The play is a very dark comedy—like, pitch-black, can’t-see-your-own-hand-in-front-of-your-face dark—with the comedic relief provided by biting sarcasm and slapstick shenanigans as the scene gradually devolves into total chaos.
From the very beginning of the Four County Players’ production, the discomfort experienced by each of the characters is palpable, and a sense of dread hangs over the whole scene. As a play with a small cast—the two couples are the only characters—each performance is crucial, and none of the actors came anywhere close to disappointing.
Especially impressive was Lena Malcolm’s interpretation of Annette Raleigh, mother of the alleged playground perpetrator. While the other characters are able to “fake it” relatively well in the beginning, the cracks in Annette’s façade begin to show a bit sooner. Though her character is often silent at the beginning, Malcolm was able to convey this discomfort to great effect through a series of nonverbal cues: a furrowed brow here, an anxious glance there. This lends an immediate relatability to her character in contrast to the others.
As the play progresses and the parents begin to lose control of themselves, Annette’s noticeable disgust with herself and the others allows her to function as an extension of the audience’s higher conscience. Her husband, Alan, originally comes off as brutish and aloof, but later on he balances out his wife by reflecting another important part of the human psyche—that of cynicism and despair.
In contrast, Michael and Veronica Novak initially seem to be the nobler of the two couples, but ultimately their descent into brutality is even more drastic and repulsive than the Raleighs.’ Veronica, in particular, espouses a sort of belief in the healing powers of “culture” and education, and shares that she’s working on a book about “the tragedy in Darfur.” Her largely passive husband Michael, by extension, seems to believe in the same thing, if not quite as strongly. This sense of a moral high ground makes it even more startling when both husband and wife become increasingly violent and offensive.
Four County staple Jonathan Karns was especially gut-wrenching as Michael, a man who has been “passed off as a liberal” but eventually proceeds to deliver perhaps the most shockingly bigoted lines of the night. The more boorish Alan may give off a worse first impression, but at least with him, what you see is more or less what you get. Michael, on the other hand, tends to tread a little more lightly in his interpersonal interactions, but when it’s revealed that he essentially sentenced his family’s pet hamster to death by releasing it into the street with no hope of survival, even the others aren’t buying into Michael’s excuses for his cruelty.
Much like the characters themselves, the set design on Friday night enforced the theme of a hidden, darker layer hiding under the surface. The Novaks’ home is sprinkled with artifacts of the “culture” they claim to respect—a tribal mask, an intricately patterned blanket, a stack of art books covering the coffee table—in what seems like an attempt to distract from the cold grays and modern geometric designs of the home itself.
However, instead of lending warmth or interest, the stark contrast only serves to draw attention to the bleakness of the home’s interior. Taken as a whole, the set reads like a middle-class prison cell with a ridiculous $40 vase of tulips plopped in the middle. The inclusion of the African artifacts also brings up questions of the morality of the cultural mining that Western society has taken part in throughout history. Is it normal or healthy, for instance, to spruce up one’s home with relics of a culture whose genocide you’re studying? The Four County set suggests that the Novaks most likely haven’t even begun to ask that question.
After all of this, you may be asking yourself, “So, why should I see this if I don’t want to make myself sad?” And certainly, hopelessness is one possible interpretation of this story. The plotline strongly echoes much of the course of human history, with alliances between the characters constantly breaking and reforming based solely on momentary self-interest rather than any sort of steadfast morality. In this interpretation, the play relegates humanity to a destructive fate based on the results of its own worst impulses. At one point, Veronica desperately asks if humans can believe in the possibility of improvement, and from this perspective, the answer is a resounding “No.”
But perhaps there is another way. What if the real problem isn’t the ugliness of human nature itself, but the destructiveness of the character’s attempts to mask that ugliness rather than staring it in the face? All of the characters use vastly different coping mechanisms to achieve this—indifference, people-pleasing, egotism and in at least one case, quite a bit of rum—but each falls short just as much the others. Avoided rather than confronted, the characters’ darker impulses are impossible to master because they essentially are allowed to run wild. Trapped in their own perspectives and vices, it’s impossible for the four individuals to find common ground.
So maybe “God of Carnage” isn’t so much about the hopelessness of civility itself, but of that civility if it isn’t grounded in genuine compassion and empathy. If so, the answer to Veronica’s question may be something more subtle, but infinitely more hopeful: “Maybe—but something has to change.”
“God of Carnage” runs weekends through May 26 in the Four County Players Cellar. Friday and Saturday night performances will take place at 8 p.m. and Sunday matinees will begin at 2:30 p.m. All tickets are $15. Parental discretion is advised due to strong language and adult situations. For more information or to purchase tickets, call 832-5355 or visit www.fourcp.org.