The playbill for “God of Carnage” suggested it would be set in a modern-day Brooklyn loft apartment, where two sets of seemingly magnanimous parents would meet to calmly discuss an incident in which one couple’s 11-year-old son bashed the other’s in the mouth. The high-minded meeting, of course, would quickly devolve.
I hadn’t seen the play in London’s West End, where it debuted in English in 2008, or on Broadway in New York, where it won a Tony in 2009. But the concept, I had to admit, sounded a bit grating – who wants to be a fly on the wall for a parental pissing contest, much less in a hip Brooklyn apartment?
Upon entering San José’s Laurence Olivier Theater, I noticed that the Little Theatre Group’s version of the play had a loose interpretation of a “modern” setting. The stage was adorned in old ethnic rugs, dull brown furniture and a 1920’s telephone. No, these characters would not seem hip. But as it turned out, that deviation – presumably caused by a lack of access to better props – didn’t matter. When it comes down to it, no parent is actually very hip anyway.
“God of Carnage” is billed as a comedy, but it’s also packed full of hard truth that many will find tragic. The seasoned actors – James Kissane, Susan Hall Liang, Tom Humes and Lisa DeFuso – all delivered on that tall order, making the audience laugh, and simultaneously making it care. Right from the start, I recognized that my concerns about the subject matter had been misplaced.
In the first half of the play, which seemed oddly short, the couples – Alan (played by Kissane) and Annette (Liang) – and Michael (Humes) and Veronica (DeFuso) – attempt to play nice with each other while drafting an entirely unnecessary incident report. But almost immediately, the possibility that Michael and Veronica’s son may have to undergo endodontic surgery sends the bonds unraveling. From there, alliances between characters form, shift and destruct at an alarming but believable rate. Annette is bestowed with many of the best one-liners, particularly involving a child’s hamster that Michael has apparently discarded. Liang’s clueless delivery and impeccable timing very much hit the mark, and she punctuates the opening act with a somewhat gruesome display that sends the drama to a new level of absurdity.
In the second half of the play, the characters do exactly what the audience secretly hopes, and really, the only thing that there is left to do. They get wasted.
Alcohol is not a new plot device – it was used in a very similar fashion in Raymond Carver’s fantastic short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” in 1981 and in countless other works of theater and literature. But here it does the trick exceedingly well, leading the characters to debate a central idea in the play that also ends up being a fairly universal but often obfuscated human problem: “We don’t care about anything but our own feelings,” three of four characters admit.
The end is as unpredictable as it is perfect, delivering a kind of profound and comedic blow that surely worked as well in the tiny Costa Rican theater as it must have on Broadway. “God of Carnage” runs again this weekend; don’t miss it.
The LTG production of “God of Carnage” runs about 90 minutes, and the show will be staged from May 3-May 5, with a 7:30 p.m. performance on Saturday and 2:30 p.m. matinees on Saturday and Sunday. The Laurence Olivier Theatre is on Av. 2, Ca. 28. For reservations: 8858-1446 or visit www.littletheatregroup.org.