Grown-ups behaving badly … with the help of booze
by Rhiannon Ross
Grown-ups aren’t immune to throwing temper tantrums.
But French playwright Yasmina Reza’s attempt to expose the Neanderthal lurking in all of us in God of Carnage is more about what happens when four, angry, rum-drunken adults meet up in a suburban living room. The 80-minute play runs now through Nov. 13 at the Unicorn Theatre.
The action centers around Brooklynites Alan and Annette Raleigh, and Michael and Veronica Novak who arrange a meeting in the Novak’s upscale home to resolve an after-school act of violence that occurs between their 11-year-old sons. (The Raleigh’s son has hit the Novak’s son in the mouth with a stick.)
l to r) Brian Paullette as Michael Novak, Melinda McCrary as Annette Raleigh, Cinnamon Schultz as Veronica Novak and John Rensenhouse as Alan Raleigh.
(photo by Cynthia Levin, courtesy Unicorn Theatre)
But it’s soon evident who the children really are in this wanna-be social commentary — one that attempts to address all violent incarnations known to humanity. The list includes no less than genocide in Darfur, the soulless pharmaceutical industry, gender politics, racism, homophobia, marriage and parental disillusionment, animal cruelty, gangs, super heroes and proper playground etiquette. (Did I leave anything out?)
The verbal humor is this script isn’t sophisticated or dark enough to succeed as satire. What we mostly hear are scrappy one-liners that are of the groan-and-grimace variety. Nor does the storyline offer us a satisfying resolution.
The saving grace of the play, if there is one, is that it offers opportunities for Equity actors John Rensenhouse, Melinda McCrary, Brian Paulette and Cinnamon Schultz to illustrate their physical comedy prowess. Director Mark Robbins has successfully maximized the slapstick in the script through carefully choreographed temper tantrums.
McCrary steals the show (and not because she flashes her white panties to the audience on more than one occasion). She’s hysterical as Annette Raleigh, a reserved wife who, with enough drinks in her, unleashes her inner wild child. There’s not a muscle in her face or a body part that she doesn’t employ to garner the biggest laughs. (Think Carol Burnett on crack.) She also spews pseudo-vomit all over the stage and some rare coffee table art books. The queasy are forewarned: this is vomit with chunks. My theater companion was nearly retching.
Rensenhouse, in the role Alan Raleigh, isn’t immediately convincing as the distracted attorney representing a pharmaceutical company on the brink of being exposed for marketing an unsafe drug, but as the play progresses, he embraces the role. The confiscation and destruction of one of his toys (a cell phone) by his wife provides a moment of audience recognition and gratification.
Paulette and Schultz, real-life husband and wife, portray the Novaks. Michael Novak is a henpecked toilet bowl sales rep guilty of releasing his child’s hamster into the New York gutters (a metaphor for his equally weasely character). It’s difficult to determine if it’s the actor or his character that’s overshadowed by the obnoxious others, but as his character’s alcohol intake rises, he too finds his inner barbarian. (Begging the question, does anyone in this little world have a voice without booze?)
Schultz’s exaggerated expressions as Veronica Novak are too melodramatic in the beginning but later work, when the adult “kids” hurl insults and tulips, choose teams and literally shove each other around in the living room-turned-playground. When her eyes roll back in her head, she appears to be channeling the witch she played in last summer’s production of MacBeth at the Kansas City Heart of America Shakespeare Festival.
The four actors’ performances on opening night lacked group cohesiveness. Each appeared content to wallow in his or her solo performance hell, as well as upstage one another. I ended up wishing I could disarm the inebriated parents of their drinks and banish them to the four corners of the living room in a group time-out.
A creative and stylized use of lighting (Brandon J. Clark) and music (Dan Warneke) opens the play and foreshadows the many conflicts to come. The set (Jordan Janata) is gorgeous and detailed with African art, giving an authentic feel of visiting someone’s well-designed living room.
Frankly, it’s difficult to believe this play, translated from French to English by British playwright and screenwriter Christopher Hampton, was the recipient of the 2009 Tony Award for Best Play. (Perhaps this speaks to the lack of new, quality plays on Broadway … but that’s another column.)
I also couldn’t help but wonder if something was lost in translation when Reza and Hampton adapted it for the American stage. After all, British and American humor isn’t always the same.
But maybe the play would have been funnier if, like the characters, I’d downed several glasses of rum.
God of Carnage, a co-production by the Unicorn Theatre and with Kansas City Actors Theatre in partnership with UMKC Theatre, runs at the Unicorn Theatre, 3828 Main, through Nov. 13. For more information, call 816-531-PLAY or visit www.unicorntheatre.org.
Rhiannon Ross can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.