Yasmina Reza’s Tony-winning Best Play of 2009 God Of Carnage arrives at La Mirada Theatre For The Performing Arts in a production so excitingly staged and performed that even those who may have caught its star-packed L.A. debut a few years back won’t want to miss this staging—the third and last of McCoy Rigby Entertainment’s trio of Best Play Tony winners.
As its title might suggest, Reza’s hilariously edgy comedy examines the carnage even the most sophisticated and socially domesticated among us can wreak when manners are forgotten and the gloves come off—helped along by copious amounts of rum.
The play’s four civilized savages are Alan and Annette Raleigh (Jamison Jones and Amy Sloan) and Michael and Veronica Novak (Hugo Armstrong and Maura Vincent), the former of whom have come to pay the Novaks a visit, though one would hardly term it a social call. It seems that the Raleighs’ eleven-year-old son Benjamin has struck the Novaks’ Henry in the face, resulting in “a swelling of the upper lip, the breaking of two incisors, including injury to the right incisor.”
The above comes from the statement Michael and Veronica have prepared and now want Alan and Annette to sign, the aggrieved parents’ attempt at some sort of closure to the playground incident.
Though writer/book shop employee Veronica seems at first to be the most levelheaded and businesslike of the bunch, she’s also the one least likely to accept a signed statement as sufficient recompense for what she considers Benjamin’s unprovoked attack on her innocent child.
Mousy wealth manager Annette seems initially entirely too cowed by her husband and timid among strangers to do anything other than get sick to her stomach. We soon learn, however, that still waters run deep once Annette has had a few glasses of rum and been forced to listen to a few too many of Alan’s incessant cell phone calls.
Corporate lawyer Alan seems entirely unconcerned with his son’s misbehavior, viewing him as the savage he is and seeing any attempt to change him as a waste of time, time that could be far better spent on the phone conducting lawyer business, place or circumstances be damned—and woe to anyone who complains about overhearing these “private conversations.”
Meanwhile domestic hardware dealer Michael takes a boys-will-be-boys attitude to the incident, confessing that he himself once led an elementary school gang of his own just as the Raleigh’s son does today, a revelation which doesn’t sit well with Veronica at all.
After about ten or fifteen minutes of small talk, haggling, and splitting hairs over words—Was Benjamin “armed” with a stick, or simply “furnished?” Is Henry’s lip “disfigured,” or only temporarily “swollen?”—and nothing particularly resolved, the Raleighs prepare to depart, a meeting between their son and the Novaks’ to take place at some as yet unspecified time in the near future.
Obviously Alan and Annette stick around, or there would be no God Of Carnage, and one of the play’s many pleasures is observing Reza’s expertise at finding ways to keep the Raleighs chez the Novaks for another hour or so, during which time married audience members will likely find at least one character whose attitudes and actions hit (perhaps too) close to home.
First and foremost, however, God Of Carnage is a comedy, albeit a dark one, and Reza mines laughs and gasps aplenty from a discarded hamster, some not-quite-ruined coffee table books, a grandmother’s blood pressure medication, and a pair of cigars about to be smoked in the home of an asthmatic child—not to mention an onstage brawl or two.
Reza not only gets us to laughing, she also gets us to thinking about male-female, male-male, and female-female relationships, as each one of her cast of four finds him-or-herself at some time or another allied with one or the other of the remaining three, whether attacking a spouse or defending his-or-her gender—or vice versa.
It helps that Arabian has cast four absolutely distinct physical “types,” each one about as perfect a match to playwright Reza’s character descriptions as imaginable. It helps even more that each cast member adds dimensions to his or her character that go above and beyond playwright Reza’s words.
Movie-star handsome Jones is the lawyer any corporation would go out of its way to hire, particularly if a jury needed more than mere evidence to be swayed, and though Alan may be the last of the four to “let it all hang out,” when the as-always splendid Jones does so, his transformation from GQ to WWE is all the more delicious considering where he has started.
Statuesque, model-slender Sloan gives us an Annette so tightly wound, she seems ever on the point of implosion. No wonder then, that when the marvelous Sloan does precisely the opposite and explodes, the effect of her public detonation is something to behold.
About as opposite a type to Sloan as one could possibly imagine, Vincent makes for an absolutely terrific Veronica, so practical and purposeful at start that when executive’s blazer and metaphoric gloves come off and she turns from businesswoman to bulldozer, watch out!
Best of all is Armstrong, who takes blue-collar Michael and makes him one of the most watchable characters of this or any year. No matter who’s got the floor at any given moment, you may find your attention drawn to Armstrong’s reactions, or simply to the visible manifestation of his “inner dialog.” I’ve seen Michael played twice before, but never as exhilaratingly as this.
John Iacovelli’s set not only gives us the tasteful elegance of the Novaks’ upscale Brooklyn residence, the veteran scenic designer’s artistry achieves the near impossible, making an intimate set design “fit” into the La Mirada Theatre’s great big proscenium arch without appearing dwarfed. Terry Hanrahan’s properties design adds carefully selected finishing touches, and the bowlful of long reeds is an inspired move by both director and designer. (You’ll see why.) Brian Gale lights stunningly, and never more so that in the play’s final minutes, in which he and director Arabian manage the near impossible, to make Reza’s blah ending work. Costume designer Ann Closs-Farley may have had only one outfit per character to create, but they are all pitch-perfect, whether worn as a matter of daily course or chosen specifically to make an impression. Josh Bessom not only provides Alan’s vibrating phone rings (proving that setting a phone to vibrate makes it no less obnoxious than a ring tone), his sound design insures that voices get heard in a theater not particularly acoustically blessed.
Casting is by Julia Flores. Buck Mason is general manager and David Cruise technical director. Lisa Palmire is production stage manager and Hanrahan assistant stage manager.
Up till now, a good deal of God Of Carnage’s popular success has come from star power—Isabelle Huppert in Paris, Ralph Fiennes in London, and Jeff Daniels, Hope Davis, James Gandolfini, and Marcia Gay Harden in New York and L.A.
While it’s true that these are bigger “names” than those of La Mirada/McCoy Rigby cast, my guess is that few if any have surpassed the work being done by Armstrong, Jones, Sloan, and Vincent. Carnage itself may not be particularly fun to watch, but this God Of Carnage most certainly is.
La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, 14900 La Mirada Boulevard, La Mirada.
January 25, 2014
Photos: Michael Lamont