Yasmina Reza has made it a career of writing plays that focus on friends and/or couples at a breaking point of their lives, whether it is caused by a white-on-white painting (Art) or a dinner gone downhill (Life X 3). In God of Carnage, currently being performed at Boston's BU Theater by the Huntington Theatre Company, Reza takes two couples who meet for the first time and pushes them to the brink of destruction. You can just cut the hilarious tension with a steak knife.
Alan and Annette Raleigh (Brooks Ashmanskas and Christy Pusz) meet with Veronica and Michael Novak (Johanna Day and Stephen Bogardus), regarding the Raleigh child knocking the teeth out of the Novak kid with a stick. What was supposed to be a quick visit turns into a downward spiral filled with screaming matches, booze, the plight of a scared hamster, and even a bit of vomit. Discussions of gang violence pride and Neanderthal ways from the men give way to the state of mind the two couples really have considering the matter. It's when Annette gets sick all over Veronica's books where the real side of the couples are shown, and opening the liquor cabinet doesn't glaze over any details.
From that point the couples are at each other's throats, and at times the husbands go against the wives. Once it's clear who each person sides with on the subject at hand the true nature of the two couples breaks out of its straight jacket and pounces without hesitation. After the men label their kids "little bastards" the women leave a sort of emotional wreckage that can be compared to watching two apes battling over a ripe banana. Alan, meanwhile, cannot focus on what really matters at the moment, as he is constantly on the phone with a pharmaceutical company his law firm represents. Once the phone is taken away by Annette (and what she does with it right afterwards) he falls apart in a way that is both comical and sympathetic.
In a way God of Carnage showcases the everyday problems we face as human beings. Sometimes you'll find yourself squirming in your seat, as a moment or story in one of these character's lives might remind you of a similar life experience. It's when Reza pushes these human emotions to the extreme where the real laughs come in. The expression on Veronica's face when Michael goes deep into detail about how he left his daughter's hamster out of his cage and into this frightening world is nothing short of a riot, and when she takes away his Spartacus-inspired manhood it hits the proverbial nail on the head as to who the real coward of the family is.
The anger from the cast throughout the play is strong, but it is thankfully coated over with Reza's trademark wit and humor. You'll find yourself cringing and laughing at the same time, sometimes for different reasons than the counterparts sitting around you. Special mention should be given to set designer Dane Laffrey, who brought out a post-modern look to the Novak household with a rich but simplistic style. The staircases the actors walk up and down are reminiscent of Escher's classic painting, and the stacks of art books that cover the stage just show a tiny characteristic of Veronica's truly whacked-out mindset.
If there's one thing Reza is good at, it's making her characters tense and miserable for the sheer enjoyment of the theatergoers. God of Carnage is no exception to her special craft. Two couples come together to settle the differences between their two children, only to find out their behavior is less grown up than their kids'. It's the type of dark humor that opens your eyes to your own actions, but also tickles your funny bone when you realize these couples' lives are far worse than anything you will possibly experience in your lifetime.
**** (out of five)
"God of Carnage" is playing through February 5 at the BU Theater, located at 264 Huntington Avenue, Boston, MA. Click here for tickets.
Photos taken from the official Huntington Theatre Company website