If you like a play that doesn't beat around the bush getting to the conflict at hand, then you're bound to appreciate God of Carnage, now at None Too Fragile Theater in Akron.
As the lights come up, two couples are sharing a casually elegant suburban living room where a vase of yellow tulips occupies a central position. And before your eyes have focused, Veronica Novak, her beefy husband Michael standing alongside, is reading from a prepared statement: "At 5:30 p.m., on the third of November in Coble Hill Park, following a verbal altercation, Benjamin Raleigh, 11, armed with a stick, struck our son Henry Novak in the face. This action resulted in, apart from a swelling of the upper lip, the breaking of two incisors, including injury to the nerve in the right incisor."
"Armed?" challenges Alan Raleigh, the husband of Annette and the father of the accused boy. It turns out, the Raleighs prefer the less provocative wording "furnished with a stick," and so the battle begins. This play by Yasmina Reza (and translated by Christopher Hampton) can easily be criticized for its superficiality as the two upper middle-class couples start out civilized and then become increasingly feral as the show evolves.
But for most of us, there is a delicious element of schadenfreude as we watch these privileged folks from the tonier reaches of Brooklyn slowly strip each other, and themselves, of their dignity. Also, it helps that Reza gives each of the characters a specific back story that contributes to the ever-increasing tension.
Director Sean Derry has assembled a dandy cast for this tag-team match that takes place in 90 minutes of real time, as refined snacks involving espresso and clafoutis give way to strong rum and projectile vomiting. This is the parlor version of Lord of the Flies where the out-of-control kids happen to be adults.
Veronica is a seemingly reasonable woman who is seeking a civil and peaceful resolution to the conflict between the two families. And she has some experience dealing with violence, since she is writing a book on the atrocities in Darfur. Her character plays nicely off hubby Michael, who starts out as a friendly sort, a wholesaler by trade who seems grounded and reasonable.
Soon, however, we learn that Michael has a dark side — especially involving racist attitudes and his interaction with his daughter's pet hamster — and that Veronica is capable of lashing out as well. In these roles, Jen Klika is believable as Veronica and Robert Ellis triggers many laughs with his underplayed Michael.
In the opposite corner is Annette, mother of the assaulter Benjamin, but she is armed only with a delicate intestinal constitution that can evidently erupt at any moment. Jacqi Loewy is adept at registering Annette's misery, both due to her upchucking and her impatience with husband Alan, who is constantly making and receiving calls.
Indeed, Alan is that creature who seems to haunt every airplane gate area, talking obnoxiously loud into his cell phone. It seems that lawyer Alan is trying to protect a big pharma client's drug from lawsuits that it causes dizziness. Although this legal sleaze is a primary stereotype, Jeffrey Grover uses an oleaginous manner and his mellifluous voice to create a fresh gloss on this character. Indeed, when he introduces the concept of a dog-eat-dog deity, which is embodied in the title, he seems to make momentary sense.
As the alliances keep shifting, with the men bonding with each other, the women doing the same, and then the couples swapping confederates, we see so many conflicts writ small. Sure, this whole mess could have been avoided with one reasonable person staking out a reasonable solution. But as we know, human dust-ups aren't often subject to sweet reason and are fueled instead by constantly escalating aggravations until the tulips hit the floor (metaphorically speaking).
While each of the actors perform superbly, the ensemble timing, which is critical to the success of this piece, gets a bit fuzzy in the second half. Some of the beats are not quite as sharp, dulling the edge of the slashing changes as each of the characters jockey for position. This will probably improve as the run continues.
Of course, the hidden instigators in all this are the kids, and Reza goes after them with vigor. As Michael says, "Children consume and fracture our lives. Children drag us towards disaster. When you see those laughing couples casting off into the sea of matrimony, you say to yourself, 'They have no idea, poor things.'" It's a sentiment that is bracingly snarky, and it gives God of Carnage its one lasting thought. Beneath the thin veneer of civilization, we are all still children armed with sticks and the outcome is anyone's guess.