In GOD OF CARNAGE, French playwright Yasmina Reza’s 90-minute award-winning black comedy, it doesn’t take long to demonstrate the old adage that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, as two sets of parents meet to discuss a playground fight between their eleven-year-old sons. Despite their initial veneer of civility, the upper-middle-class adults quickly descend into behavior as bad as their children’s, revealing the savage nature inherent in all humans, and resulting in steadily growing laughs in the Ritz Theatre’s thoroughly entertaining and engaging production.
Maureen Corson, Paul McElwee, Jessica Doheny, and John Jackowski play the couples who have come together to settle their children’s violent altercation. Under Esther Flaster’s well-tempered direction, the perfectly balanced ensemble gives controlled performances that reveal a continuous decline of manners and abandonment of pretense with the increasing tension of their conversation and their free-flowing consumption of expensive aged rum. As the awkward evening progresses, their early “effort to remain moderate on the surface” devolves into hilarious full-blown chaos and reflects the trouble that lies within the archetypal characters’ chic exteriors and dysfunctional marriages.
McElwee is a study in condescension and impatience as the smug high-powered corporate attorney Alan Raleigh, who opines that “courtesy is a waste of time,” emphatically believes in the “god of carnage,” and is less involved with the issue at hand than with incessant cell phone calls about his big case for a pharmaceutical company. He quickly launches into battles over semantics with his hostess Veronica Novak (Doheny), a writer whose passive-aggressive language and lofty sociological interests in art and culture reveal her intellectual pretentiousness, as she serves home-made clafoutis and espresso to her uncomfortable guests. Alan’s long-suffering wife Annette (Corson), whose stated expertise is in “wealth management” (presumably her husband’s substantial income), is desperately solicitous and uncontrollably queasy, and Veronica’s husband Michael (Jackowski), a self-made wholesaler of home appliances and detailing, keenly observes that “objects become ridiculously important” as he cleans Annette’s vomit off of his wife’s prized coffee-table collection of rare art books. All four actors speak volumes with their spot-on facial expressions, readily legible body language, shifting tones of voice, and bared emotions, delivering the sardonic humor and pathos of Michael’s explosive observation that “we’re all fucking Neanderthals!”
The sleek minimalist modernism of the Novaks’ finely appointed but tastefully understated living room in Brooklyn’s upscale Cobble Hill neighborhood (set design by W. Kris Clayton, props by Judy Conroy) and the dressed-to-impress attire that defines the characters and their chosen careers (costumes by Hanna Gaffney) demonstrate their façade of refinement and professionalism that ends up in shambles. Though each–laughably intoxicated and sorely frustrated by play’s end–laments “the unhappiest day of my life,” you will happily relish this skillfully performed, darkly comic, and thought-provoking production. [915 White Horse Pike, Oaklyn, NJ] May 7-31, 2015; ritztheatreco.org.