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A thin veneer of civilization is all that protects us from our most Neanderthal origins.
Laughs triggered by Purple Rose Theater’s rendition of Yasmina Reza’s “God of Carnage” are uncomfortably funny as we watch polite, politically correct helicopter parents, devolve from a superficially proper Brooklyn, New York, state-of-mind elegance into an ongoing melee of increasingly conflictual escalation. Bartley H. Bauer’s abstract set, a collection of pastel monolithic panels that stand tall representing peace, good will and tranquility.
So, one kid whacks another with a stick, knocking out one, maybe two front teeth. How do we deal with that? A meeting of concerned hand-wringing parents, over espresso and exotic pastries. What could go wrong?
In poker, four aces is a winning hand. In the hands of four skilled actors, “God of Carnage is a winning show. Are there, anywhere in the world, four more pathetic examples of parents with no impulse control? Each of four actors in time begin to fully inhabit their annoyingly familiar character. The point of this play, apparently, is to see ourselves in the out-of-control machinations of at least one of the characters.
Hostility builds slowly, with parent Veronica, portrayed by Michelle Mountain, welcoming the other set of parents into a upscale high-rise of modernistic art, and ending every sentence of conversation, with a biting remark and an increasingly histrionic, hyperbolic arc of sarcasm. It doesn’t take but a minute for the other three characters on stage to begin responding in kind, including her own husband Michael, played by Paul Stroili. His responses have his characteristic “New Yawky” accent, a barely-disguised contempt for the proceedings and a simplistic anthem of “boys will be boys.” Michael is a bootstraps kind of guy, owns a local store that sells toilet parts and an array of things for fix-it kind of guys. Stroili is the authentic, real-deal Brooklynite.
Therefore, his views of Alan, a fast talking anal-retentive and too-tightly wound lawyer, played by Rusty Mewha, are far from positive.
Mewha prowls the stage like a caged tiger, stalking Michael as if he is prey. Alan is clearly preoccupied with a crisis that pops in on his cell phone from time to time. He doesn’t want to be there either.
Turning to the women in the play, we meet Annette, Alan’s wife, a long-legged, cool, austere blonde of a trophy wife, played to perfection by Kate Thomsen. Annette, insists that her kid’s whacking of the other couple’s kid was prompted by … something: an offhand remark, a label or a justification.
Drinks are served and alcohol further loosens the tongues of all four characters. Escalation creeps up slowly and then explodes across the stage — literally. Annette projectile-vomits a purple rain of stomach contents across the exquisitely tailored suit of her husband and the coffee table art books of the hosting couple.
Can this foursome be saved?
Ranting speeches begin, each character convinced they can have the last word, be the one in control. Veronica, Michael’s husband, physically assaults him. The arguments ebb and flow, but each one not accelerating to a crescendo, but rather degenerating into an exhaustion and numbness of being. The play ends like a 15-round fight, all athletes too spent to breathe. A whispery in-house call from the toothless boy’s older sister suggests she is asking, “Is it Safe?” The lights dim to black.
Are we done? What do we learn from this play? The notion that any of us, at times, can be instantly reactive, unfiltered, over the top, entirely lacking in perspective?
True that. It is nothing to be celebrated, but certainly a standard against which we can compare ourselves. For better, for worse?
“God of Carnage” Now through Sat., Dec. 16. Weekly: Wed.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 8 p.m. and 3 p.m.; Sun. 2 p.m. Purple Rose Theatre Co. 137 Park St., Chelsea (734) 433-7782 purplerosetheatre.org.