Civilization, basically, is a set of rules to which people frequently don’t adhere. That short, rather obvious statement sums up the plot, themes, and performances of Circle Theatre’s lively but insubstantial staging of the caustic comedy God of Carnage.
I saw the first North Texas production of Yasmina Reza’s script at Dallas Theater Center last summer, and I’ve watched the claustrophobic Roman Polanski film version, Carnage. In almost any venue or medium, though, this play about two sets of parents who resort to verbal and physical brawling over a playground conflict between their children seems underdeveloped at best, self-evident at worst. It’s not that Circle’s ace comic director Robin Armstrong and her four accomplished actors don’t work overtime to keep audiences captivated by the sight of adults behaving childishly. And since the show clocks in at a tidy 70 minutes or so without intermission, the playwright herself seems aware of the limitations of her subject matter. But as much fun as it can be to watch the performers get in touch with their petty, uncivilized sides, this script feels oddly stillborn –– especially for a play that has racked up so much critical acclaim around the world.
To be sure, Reza pays lip service to important themes –– the tribal and even animalistic nature of humans, our dependence on class-conscious status objects like cellphones and designer purses, the hypocrisy of liberals and the nihilism of conservatives. All of these forces come into play in what should be a courteous exchange between two well-educated, upper-middle-class couples.
Veronica (Lisa Fairchild) and her husband Michael (Mark Fickert) and Alan (Brad Stephens) and his wife Annette (Leah Layman) have a sit-down over coffee and cake to discuss a fight between their school-age kids. In that altercation, one boy got called a “snitch” and the other had two teeth knocked out. Though both families enjoy relatively affluent lives, the worldviews of the two sets of parents are quite different. Veronica is an art lover who believes in “the soothing powers of culture” and who is working on a book about the Darfur genocide. Alan is a corporate lawyer who represents pharmaceutical companies and is currently helping a client beat back allegations that a new drug has dangerous side effects. These two appear to be the alpha dogs in their respective marriages; their spouses, Michael and Annette, are the mostly silent partners who’ve stayed supportively on the sidelines despite mounting grievances. But the fight between their sons has diminished everyone’s desire to be polite –– that, and Michael’s top-shelf rum, which is brought out in one of the play’s more artificial devices. And so rage, recrimination, and some roughhousing dominate the stage before the proceedings come to a rather abrupt end.
Like most theaters in the English-speaking world that tackle this play, Circle is using Christopher Hampton’s translation of Reza’s originally French script. I’m curious how many linguistic and cultural subtleties were lost in the transfer, because something has got to explain the absence of any core of dramatic urgency in this show. Certainly, there’s a vicarious thrill to be had from watching grown-ups unable to control their impulses, and Armstrong and her cast exploit that spontaneous train wreck for all it’s worth. But like the thrill of watching soccer parents duking it out on the field over their offspring, this production is all empty calories and obvious choices. It’s exceedingly well cast, though: Fickert displays his priceless flair for schlubbiness as Michael, the husband who resents being passed off as a liberal. As Annette, Layman, in pearls and a classy black dress suit, goes from brittle and meek to cocky and vengeful without losing an ounce of the character’s (limited) credibility. As the trial lawyer who firmly believes might makes right, Stephens starts out impressively reptilian and keeps slithering along, while Fairchild, with Earth-mother shawl and patronizing tone, effortlessly navigates the journey from smug lefty self-righteousness to tantrum-throwing self-pity.
Because there’s no real character arc or thematic development in the play, though, God of Carnage succeeds best as a boisterous series of acting exercises rather than a complete theatrical experience. And if you’re in the mood for that, there are certainly worse ways to pass an evening than with Circle’s enthusiastic cast. Ticketbuyers will leave this show confirmed in their suspicion that we all have a breaking point and, when we reach it, are capable of fairly brutish behavior. But audiences can be reminded of the same thing by watching any random 10 minutes of cable news. Surely theater should aspire to a little more than that.
God of Carnage
Thru Feb 23 at Circle Theatre, 230 W 4th St, FW. $20-30.