Review: ‘God of Carnage’ at Theatre Aspen
Special to The Aspen Times
IF YOU GO …
What: ‘God of Carnage,’ presented by Theatre Aspen
Where: Hurst Theatre, Rio Grande Park
When: Through Aug. 3
Tickets: Theatre Aspen box office; theatreaspen.org
Playwright Yasmina Reza originally wrote “God of Carnage” in her native French in 2005. After a 2006 premiere in Germany and a successful run in France and the U.K., the Americanized version opened on Broadway in 2009. Translated by Christopher Hampton and set in Brooklyn, Reza’s sardonic exploration of economic privilege and competitive parenting immediately resonated with American audiences, earning the show multiple Tony Awards including Best Play.
Perhaps her dark comedy seamlessly transcends locale and nationality because the story is so universally human. When two 11-year-old boys get into an altercation that results in one of them losing his front incisors, their parents arrange a meeting to discuss the incident. Both parties are well-bred and well-intentioned, so what can go wrong?
Lights up on the stage at Theatre Aspen. While the crowd is still settling in, Joan Hess (as Veronica) sweeps through her Brooklyn apartment, gathering the childhood toys and sports paraphernalia of an unseen child. Markas Henry’s scenic design is one-part bohemian tribalism, one-part urban chic. From the exposed-brick back wall to the casually expensive furnishings and carefully curated accents, it’s the perfect habitat for people who are trying hard to look like they’re laid back.
The real action begins when the parents of the stick-wielding Benjamin, Michael and Annette, arrive at the home of Veronica and Alan, parents of the injured (and potentially disfigured) Henry. All begins well. Four seemingly reasonable adults set out to address the unfortunate event calmly and rationally, determined to avoid any “infantile” blame games.
Money is no object for either family, but it soon becomes clear that it will take more than cash to rectify the damage — and soothe the wounded egos involved. The very premise of this play is a setup for disaster. Take four complicated parents in defense mode, toss them into a confined space, challenge their life choices, and you better be prepared to see some ruffled feathers fly.
At first, the couples team up against one another in the most likely pairings: parents of the victim versus parents of the attacker. Socially conscious Veronica (portrayed by Hess with a deft combination of ostentatious altruism and thinly-veiled rage) is a writer committed to non-violent conflict resolution. Her husband, Alan, a businessman specializing in household goods (and played with an earthy swagger by Christian Conn), enjoys good food, fine cigars, strong liquor and straight talk. Together, the couple suggests that their guests ought to make their son, Benjamin, apologize — and mean it.
Benjamin’s attorney father, Michael (Torsten Hillhouse as a brusque incarnation of entitlement), is determined to settle the matter quickly, so he can turn his full attention to the work phone calls that keep interrupting his parental negotiations. “Don’t admit liability,” he barks into his cellphone. Employing a similar strategy with Alan and Veronica, Michael concedes that his son is “a savage” but balks at the idea of holding him accountable for his behavior. Boys will be boys, after all.
His wife, Annette (Alice Sherman as a well-heeled time bomb, ticking with stifled ambition), is a wealth management strategist who just wants her husband to hang up and participate in the life of their child. But no matter how hard she tries to engage him in their current family crisis, he’s too busy defending a guilty pharmaceutical company to notice her mounting distress.
Pushed past her long-suffering limits, Annette starts to “stress vomit,” a messy business that prompts curses from Veronica and Alan as they leap into action to save their couch, carpet, and rare art books. Soon, implied insults morph into pointed accusations, and the veil of social niceties wears thin. By the time Alan pulls the stopper from a bottle of rum, all bets are off. Tempers flare, and strained civility is superseded by base instinct.
In the tradition of Edward Albee, “God of Carnage” offers the audience ringside seats to a knock-out, drag-down, emotional confrontation. Although Reza employs more overt comedy than her predecessor, the laughter she provokes is often accompanied by involuntary wincing.
The play sets men against women (and vice-versa), couple against couple, and parents against children, exploring nearly every dynamic of conflict in the course of 70 fast-paced minutes. The artful staging of director Karen Azenberg underscores the constantly shifting alliances without beating the audience over the head with them (even as the living room devolves into a well-appointed boxing ring).
Maybe, as Veronica suggests, civilization can be preserved by “the soothing powers of culture.” Or perhaps Michael is correct, and we are all just “Neanderthals” struggling in an inevitable might-makes-right battle to the death. No matter where you fall on the spectrum of hope for humanity, it’s impossible to look away from Theatre Aspen’s compelling “God of Carnage.”
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The literary nonprofit Aspen Words is restarting its writers-in-residence program that had been on pause during the pandemic. Residents include “Call Me By Your Name” author André Aciman. Public events begin June 15.