(l to r) Doug McKeag, Ryan Lyhning, Helen Taylor. Photo by Trudie Lee
God of Carnage
March 12 – April 7, 2012
Max Bell Theatre
“How many parents stand up for their child and end up behaving infantile themselves in the process?” It’s a congratulatory question asked by one of the parents in a couple’s get-together discussing a schoolyard fight between their children in Yasmina Reza’s Tony Award winning one-act comedy, God of Carnage. The laudatory remark seems fitting as these couples have come together specifically not to point fingers at one another’s child or to blame each other’s parenting skills. Instead they are meeting to calmly discuss the incident that saw Annette and Alan’s boy, Benjamin swing a baton at Veronica and Michael’s boy Henry, knocking two of his teeth out. Amicable moods prevail as the couples agree to get the boys together to apologize and work things out.
But right from the start, the audience knows that this civil discussion is teetering on the brink of disaster in large part due to the discordant nature of all the personalities in the room. There’s Veronica (Helen Taylor) a social justice saviour of the earth do-gooder, her husband Michael (Doug McKeag) a seemingly easy-going guy that’s just too amenable to be true, Annette (Daniela Vlaskalic) the uptight but politically correct wealth manager and her stereotypically boorish, workaholic lawyer husband Alan (Ryan Luhning). With a mix like this (and the need for an actual story arc in the play) there’s just no way that tempers are going to remain uncorked.
And there you have the glut of the play. Tempers are lost; fighting ensues – between couples, between individuals and between genders. It’s reasonable adult sparing at first, but the action quickly devolves (with the help of alcohol) into the puerile and preposterous where not only do words get tossed, but ridiculous beatings with couch pillows, a contrived tulip massacre, dubious purse dumpings and accusations of hamster murder are all fair game. Not to mention a projectile vomiting scene and clean up scenario so milked for humour that it’s painful in its artifice. Which is not to say that the audience doesn’t suck it all up with glee. These overwrought plot twists are fashioned not so much for the creativity they bring to the play or the wit they add to the comedy. Instead the gags cheaply target for the easy laugh in the most efficient way possible. And apparently nothing is funnier than watching a wealth manager not excuse herself to go the bathroom when she needs to throw up, not once…but three times on a strange couple’s coffee table.
I remember feeling this same sort of disappointment with the script when I saw the play four years ago on Broadway. And while the stellar New York cast of Jeff Daniels, Hope Davis, James Gandolfini and Marcia Gay Harden did their best to bring a modicum of reality to their characters, I couldn’t help but think that God of Carnage failed because it was neither a true farce nor an adroit, ingenious comedy.
The actors in this production certainly don’t match the talent of the original Broadway cast, but for the most part they held their own well enough. Luhning is obviously enjoying himself playing the ill-mannered pot-stirrer and his energy is appreciated even if his timing is a bit slow in places. Vlaskalic starts off somewhat unsure of her voice but warms up to the role once her character moves beyond the requisite vomiting. McKeag is the strongest performer in the cast, going from affable to cantankerous in a way that makes the entire audience exhale along with him. Perhaps the only real weak link in the ensemble is Taylor whose upstanding, holier than thou performance had its moments, but was hampered by her self-conscious delivery that more often than not lead to a wooden delivery.
Director Jan Alexandra Smith does her best to keep the one room/one gag type action moving along. Annette and Alan walk halfway out the door more times in this production that would seem humanly possible and never before have you seen people stomp around one room so feverishly as this. Costume-wise they all looked the part save for wealth manager Annette. Clad in shades of soft neutrals, she hardly gave the air of a high-power financial player. But more egregious was the choice to put her in Capri pants with nude nylons and a run of the mill mall purse. These may be small issues, but all together they contrived to lessen the impact of this character’s position and by extension the humour of watching her fall.
Patrick Du Wors’ set design adequately represents an upper/middle class living room fitted with all the right art and culture books that Veronica has amassed over the years. But no matter how hard I squinted at what dangled above the stage, all I could make out was dozens of strings with various sized and coloured rocks tied to the bottom. Was this a metaphor for the damage these couple were doing? Was it some kind of chandelier? Or was it a cast member’s kid’s art project gone awry. Regardless, it was a superfluous addition to what needed only to be a simple prop-bound set.
But then, to my mind, all of God of Carnage is inconsequential and superfluous. With so many modern ways to watch adults behaving badly for 90 minutes (reality TV anyone?) I wish this play gave us something to truly think about and made us laugh in ways less obvious. But maybe that’s the point. Adults behaving this badly aren’t worth thinking about deeply nor are they really that funny. In that case, mission accomplished.
For the guys and the girls – If your funny bone is tickled watching ideologies low-blow each other and genders take swipes, then this is the play for you. If you want a little smarts with your comedy – move along. MAYBE SEE IT
For the occasional theatre goer – It’s a fast-moving, comically shocking, easy to follow quick show. You may be miffed at the non-ending, but you’ll have fun along the way. SEE IT
For the theater junkie – It’s always nice to make a Tony winner part of your cannon, but remember, just because it wins a Tony, doesn’t make it a great play. Maybe it was just the best of a not so great bunch that year. MAYBE SEE IT