N.Y. / REGION | ARTS | LONG ISLAND
Review: ‘God of Carnage’ Puts Parents in a Metaphoric Bull Ring
By AILEEN JACOBSONJAN. 30, 2016
From left, Nancy Lemenager, Mickey Solis, Alet Taylor and Chris Kipiniak as two sets of parents in “God of Carnage.” The couples have met to discuss a playground altercation between their 11-year-old sons.
The ceramic red bull prancing on a shelf could be considered a symbol for the action that takes place before it, in a chic living room in Brooklyn.
The two married couples in the room are ostensibly striving for “the art of coexistence” as they discuss an earlier playground altercation between their 11-year-old sons. At first, the parents seem to be engaged in no more than a bit of social banter, politely lobbing remarks and rejoinders back and forth. But they end up in a metaphoric bull ring — free of actual blood, of course, this being a comedy by Yasmina Reza.
“God of Carnage,” now at the John W. Engeman Theater at Northport in a thoughtful and well-acted production, draws both laughs and gasps as the characters become more and more belligerent. Toward the end, the sparring parents are helped along by a lot of rum.
An episode of projectile vomiting (unrelated to the rum) that damages some treasured art books may simply be an unavoidable accident. But it could also be interpreted as an unconscious passive-aggressive gesture. Either way, it is a spectacular special effect and a trigger for more overtly hostile language.
The beginning of the play is calm enough. Michael (Mickey Solis) and Veronica (Nancy Lemenager) have invited Alan (Chris Kipiniak) and Annette (Alet Taylor) to their apartment in the upscale Cobble Hill neighborhood of Brooklyn. Henry, the hosts’ son, sustained two broken teeth when Benjamin, the guests’ son, hit him with a stick. Veronica is drafting a statement about the event, and the first item the parents discuss is whether Benjamin did the deed while “armed with a stick,” as Veronica — who proudly mentions that she is at work on a book about “the Darfur tragedy” in Africa — has written. Alan, a shark of a lawyer (as we hear during his constant cellphone conversations), suggests “furnished with a stick,” and they all quickly agree on the less prejudicial wording.
The writing, elegantly translated by Christopher Hampton from Ms. Reza’s French into culturally on-target American English, is often as telling as this exchange. The details are exquisitely precise, which leads to much of the humor that made this play a Broadway hit and a Tony Award winner after it opened in 2009. (Reza’s 1998 “Art” also won the Tony for best play.)
What the play never really explains is why Veronica thinks a written document, which is not intended, apparently, for any public forum, will help to bring peace or closure, and why she as the aggrieved parent would want that. Some revelations also don’t make much sense: Michael inexplicably admits to questionable behavior toward a family pet that he should know will put him in a bad light, while Alan later loudly proclaims, “My son is a savage.” Reasonably smart people (who haven’t hit the rum yet) know better than to say such things.
The Broadway production, with its blindingly star-studded cast (Jeff Daniels, Hope Davis, Marcia Gay Harden and James Gandolfini) and a much longer rehearsal period than the Engeman production, managed to gloss over the play’s weaknesses. That doesn’t always happen here.
Nevertheless, the intelligent direction by Richard T. Dolce and the brightly energetic acting bring out the fun — call it schadenfreude — in watching an escalating battle among four accomplished and privileged adults. Problems in both marriages surface, even as mitigating circumstances emerge that make the playground episode seem much less one-sided. The parents behave like playground bullies (or matadors gone wild), throwing tantrums, fists and four-letter words. The subtle warning — or promise — of the decorative bull in Stephen Dobay’s excellent set, which is expertly lighted by Driscoll Otto, is fulfilled.
“God of Carnage” continues through March 6 at the John W. Engeman Theater at Northport, 250 Main Street. Information: 631-261-2900 or engemantheater.com.
A version of this review appears in print on January 31, 2016, on page LI8 of the New York edition with the headline: Brooklyn Parents in a Metaphoric Bull Ring. Order Reprints| Today’s Paper|Subscribe