Sunday, April 27, 2014

God of Carnage Delightfully Vicious

By James E. Trainor III
Photos by Len Struttmann

Chad Canfield, Deborah Maynard, D. Allan Boettger, and Stephanie Corkran.
Cedar Rapids - The setting is a comfortable middle-class living room, a space which is not afraid of advertising its culture: there are curious paintings on the wall, inviting picture books on the modest coffee table, some lovely tulips downstage. It has an aura of being a bastion of civilization. And why shouldn't it? This is, after all, where Veronica (Stephanie Corkran) and Michael (D. Allan Boettger) have invited Allan (Chad Canfield) and Annette (Deborah Maynard) to calmly work out a dispute between their children. It seems Allan and Annette's son decided to clobber Veronica and Michael's son with a stick, knocking out two of his teeth. Tensions are understandably high, but these are educated adults, so they're going to rise above it, for the sake of their children and in the name of all western civilization.

Only it's not that easy. Yazmina Reza's God of Carnage (tr. Christopher Hampton), which is an admittedly cynical satire of liberal hypocrisy while also being an absolutely hilarious situation piece, does a great job of digging beneath the airs we put on and questioning why adults so often act like children when confronted with someone they despise. For all her political correctness and her attempts at civility, Veronica holds a thinly veiled disdain for Allan and Annette, and when she stoops to give them parenting advice and is rebuked, she becomes involved in a scene that reveals the shaky foundation of her marriage and causes her to question her very values.

J. David Carey's direction moves the piece in a swift, organic fashion while managing to deal with the challenges of placing a living room in the middle of a three-quarter round setting. The set, designed by Daniel Kelchen, adds to the story by giving a lot of background to Veronica and Michael's life. The furniture was at times a liability, though; while the set is fairly open, a couple of crosses seem clunky and unnatural, because paths were obstructed and the actors had trouble working that into their reality. There is also some awkwardness with some books that are vomited on (a funny and somewhat startling set piece), because they aren't really consistent about what's been damaged and how badly. These are small potatoes, though, as the strength of Carey's direction, and the actors' work, rests squarely on the very clear relationships they build together.

Canfield's Allan is funny and effective, a successful lawyer who has learned to hide his impatience and disinterest with anything relating to the domestic sphere. Canfield is a skilled comedian who listens to his stage partners and knows how to take over the stage when he has to. Allan's constant character note is his dismissive attitude and his insistence on taking calls from a client in front of everyone. This gives a great opportunity for some ensemble work; the conversation stops and there is a palpable discomfort as Canfield confidently strolls around the room, giving marching orders to the representative of a pharmaceutical company under attack.

Maynard's Annette is crafted well, and marks a great contrast to Allan's lack of decorum. She presents a tense but controlled woman, who is embarrassed by the situation but able to cope. Throughout the course of the play, we get to see her fall to pieces, however, and Maynard's physical work is impressive. The stiff posture and quiet anger is released as Annette vomits onstage, and Maynard creates a contrast in the rest of the play, where Annette is not only loosened up and comfortable, she's ready to talk about her deep dissatisfaction.

Boettger's Michael is also the portrait of a dissatisfied spouse, and he uses contrast to make this clear as well. The person at the beginning, a smiling, conciliatory "whatever-you-say, dear" supporting character, becomes the center of attention when he viciously airs his disgust with marriage, children, and their little furry pets. To see the mild-mannered man come apart at the seams is funny, if a little scary, but what makes Boettger's character work so effective is that he is so in tune with Corkran. The work they do together speaks volumes about the history of this marriage, adding a layer of humanity and reality to the words on the page.

Corkran herself has the hardest job, for while all the characters in God of Carnage are unlikeable, Veronica is the one who could most easily degenerate into a cartoon. On the page, she feels very close to an Ayn Rand caricature of a liberal pacifist: a self-appointed crusader for civilization, willing to use aggressive and even violent tactics when people don't agree with her. Some of Reza's signifiers (she's writing a book on Darfur, she's compared to Jane Fonda), are a bit cliche and a little too easy. More importantly, when the everyone else in the play willingly unveiled their flaws, she sticks to her guns and refuses to admit any wrongdoing, no matter how petty she becomes. She's almost the villain of the play, the one who stands in the way of clarity and truth.

Stephanie Corkran
In Corkran's hands, however, we see a well-rounded character. Though Veronica is ridiculous, she's also sympathetic. Through her nonverbals and her attention to the other actors, we get a sense of Veronica's good qualities as well as her bad, and, particularly through her interaction with Boettger, we see how toxic her marriage is, and how much she's hurting. In the last moments, as Veronica consoles her daughter on the phone (she's upset because Daddy basically killed her pet hamster), I saw something I've never seen in this play before: Veronica isn't truly naive. She knows exactly how messed up the world is, and how powerless she is, and this is the source of her anger. This surprisingly tender humanity serves to smooth the rough edges of Reza's very cynical script, while still staying within her reality. It makes Veronica a very realistic person, which in turn makes the whole play a hell of a lot funnier.

God of Carnage is a very funny play that refuses to pull its punches when it comes to taking on the gaps between our lofty ideals and our actual actions. TCR's cast, under Carey's guidance, does a wonderful job of bringing these flawed but intriguing characters to life. I would add a warning here about a great deal of profanity, if that's something that bothers you, but otherwise I would recommend you check out this play: it's full of laughs, and it just might make you think.

God of Carnage plays through May 18 in TCR's Grandon Studio. More information here.

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