"God of Carnage" at the Caldwell Theatre: When Adults Don't Put Away Childish Things
It's hard to vomit convincingly onstage. Just ask Kim Ostrenko, who has to do it every show through May 15 at the Caldwell. Upchucking with verisimilitude is easier on film, where the artifice of editing can create a more sophisticated illusion. Watching Ostrenko throw up on opening night of the Caldwell's God of Carnage, it seemed she, and the company's technical team, hadn't mastered it yet.
The puke gushed forth with hoselike propulsion, a projectile of chunky liquid that looked like something that would spew out of Leslie Nielsen. The crowd applauded, but was it a sympathy cheer for Ostrenko and the rest of the cast for gamely soldiering on after the scene went awry? Or was it a natural reaction to a scene that was supposed to be ridiculous and slapsticky?
Since it's the kind of moment that can very well go differently each performance, it almost prompts a repeated viewing. But judging by the show that surrounded it, I'm inclined to think it was a deliberate choice. Kenneth Kay directs with the best of intentions, but this show lacks the crackling electricity and adherence to everyday realism that earned the Broadway production a Best Play Tony in 2009. The vomiting scene is indicative of everything else in this version: stripped of nuance and played for base, artificial humor.
God of Carnage, by French playwright Yasmina Reza and translated by Christopher Hampton, is an overrated work to begin with. It's about two sets of parents who meet in one of the families' living rooms to discuss a schoolyard attack. It appears that Benjamin, the son of Annette and Alan Raleigh (played here by Ostrenko and Nick Santa Maria) had struck Henry, the son of Veronica and Michael Novak (Kim Cozort and Michael Serratore, the latter channeling Alan Arkin) with a bamboo stick, damaging a couple of teeth. The four parents will spend the next hour and a half trying to resolve the incident in the Novaks' spacious living room — a Design District-style Lucite-and-microfiber affair created by ace set designer Tim Bennett.
The afternoon does not go as planned. Alan, an unctuous lawyer for an unethical pharmaceutical company, answers his buzzing cell phone every few minutes and jabbers to his colleagues, a rude act that adds tension to the discussion. Veronica and Michael are having their own marital tiff, thanks to Michael's rogue decision to "liberate" the family's hamster, devastating their daughter. And then there's Annette's vomiting binge.
All of which is only the preamble: The play careens and stumbles, all guns blazing, toward the carnage of the title, in which the increasingly hostile characters end up battered, plastered, and supine, strewn about the now-disheveled suburban abode like action figures following a child's battle scene. The inciting incident — their sons' skirmish — is all but an afterthought as the parents devolve into their own narcissistic, petulant theatrics.
Through the ironic observation that parents cannot resolve their children's drama without acting like dramatic children themselves, Reza suggests that when we chip away the veneer of "adult" civility, we're left with primal savagery. We operate with decorum only because it's what society demands of us. The only advantage we have over our kids is a larger vocabulary of venom to vocalize our juvenile thoughts.
Reza's hip misanthropy, at least in the Caldwell's hands, is as blunt as a kick in the balls, rendering God of Carnage a surprisingly hollow exercise in didactic, on-the-nose storytelling. When we're told what to think, we have nothing to chew on as the play wends — or in this case, fizzles — to its conclusion. Reza's egalitarian diatribe all too easily dismisses everyone as boorish pigs, as handy a way to avoid genuine character depth as by turning her characters' conversation into a veritable steel cage match.
But the faults of God of Carnage need to be spread evenly between the production and the source material, because at least steel cage matches can be fun to watch. Kay's direction plods where it should zip. In a 90-minute, real-time, no-intermission production, you should never feel the need to check your watch. During God of Carnage, it may become an unwelcome habit.
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