No matter how civilized we think we are, the slightest upset in our routine can turn most of us into savages. Or, even worse, snotty name-calling children.
In God of Carnage at Dobama Theatre, the thin candy shell of civility we all rely upon is dissolved by two sets of parents who have met to discuss a dust-up between their preteen sons.
Hilarious and incisive as it is in spots, playwright Yasmina Reza's concoction never dares to plumb the depths, as Edward Albee did in another two-couple cage match, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf.
But let's not make the perfect the enemy of the good. Under Joel Hammer's firm direction, the laughter flows freely in Carnage, as these four people are swept along by the riptides of their own weaknesses and insecurities.
They have gathered in the sleek, contemporary living room of Michael and Veronica, intent on discussing yesterday's playground conflict. That's where Alan and Annette's son Benjamin clobbered their host's son with a stick and damaged two of his teeth.
Everyone is walking on eggshells at first, parsing their words with care and trying to be solicitous of the other couple's feelings. But Veronica is softly insistent on framing Benjamin as the perp, an idea the high-powered lawyer Alan quietly rejects — as he also fields a barrage of cell phone calls about a big-pharma lawsuit he's currently supervising.
As the 90-minute one-act progresses, the neat-as-a-pin room turns into a cosmopolitan hellhole, as nerves get frayed, accusations are flung, liquor flows, and allegiances shift among the four combatants. And as if that weren't enough, it's punctuated at one point by Annette vomiting on Veronica's priceless coffee-table book.
In order to pay off Reza's acidly humorous script, the actors have to perform seamlessly as an ensemble. And the Dobama production, while not entirely flawless, is enormously effective.
As Alan, Scott Miller has the lean, dark, raptor-like intensity of a high-end attorney, complete with arrogance so thick you could spread it on a bagel. And he approaches his smart-phone interruptions with all the callous indifference of the guy in the airport who brays into his Nokia at top volume.
His quiet yet simmering wife Annette is played by Derdriu Ring, who gives the character a strong backbone that belies her less-than-reliable digestive tract. Eventually, sitting with a bottle of rum in one hand and a plastic puke basin on her lap, Ring is the very picture of rational society unmasked.
On opening night, Ring's moment of passive-aggressive vomiting came off far too tame. While an over-the-top, SNL-style chunkfest might be a bit much (and could risk sympathetic upchucking in the audience), there was a need for more fluid and maybe some former dinner, since Annette had just finished eating.
Tracee Patterson plays art historian Veronica with a smug sense of superiority, since she sees her family as the victims in this unfortunate playground event. But smug soon turns to smashed as she pries the bottle out of her husband's hand and starts to woozily bond with Annette.
Good-natured Michael seems to be the most reasonable of the bunch. But he too reveals a shadowy side as he revels in the idea of violence, recalling his youthful days in a gang. John Hedges handles this transition smoothly, but without a dangerous edge that would make Michael more of a force in the foursome.
Playwright Reza masters all the verbal swordplay, but her work is ultimately less risk-taking than it seems. None of the characters has much to lose or gain in this situation, other than momentary embarrassment, so the eventual take-away feels a bit hollow.
Still, Carnage will delight anyone who enjoys seeing supposedly refined sophisticates taken down a peg or three. And who doesn't love that?