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Review: 'Carnage' at Portland Stage; Terrific actors acting terribly

Posted Wednesday, November 9, 2011 in Culture

by Jan Brennan

Who would pay good money just to watch two couples argue and insult each other all evening?

Plenty of people, judging by the full house at Portland Stage Company’s opening-night performance of “God of Carnage” on Nov. 4. And judging by the near-constant laughter and standing ovation, they were very glad they did.

The premise of the play is deceptively simple: Alain and Annette Reille come to the Paris penthouse apartment of Michel and Veronique Vallon to apologize for their little boy knocking out the teeth of the Vallons’ son in a playground fight. And from there, hilarity ensues?

Exactly.

French playwright Yasmina Reza uses this little domestic situation as a starting point to skewer everything from international do-gooders to pharmaceutical companies who cover up dangerous side effects to the silly pet names spouses call each other. It seems no aspect of modern life is left untouched in this fast-paced comedy of manners and the lack thereof.

The couples’ visit starts out well enough; all are on their best behavior as they meet under delicate circumstances. Amy Bodnar’s Annette seems especially nervous and eager to please — as the wife of a lawyer she is walking on eggshells to avoid a lawsuit over her son’s bad behavior. The victim’s mother, Veronique (Kate Udall), is just as eager to appear in the best light, as the magnanimous benefactress she imagines herself to be. She responds to the attack on her son with the same concern and generosity of spirit that she lavishes upon her favorite causes, most recently the plight of Darfur refugees.

But the quartet’s veneer of oh-so-civilized society quickly crumbles under the quirks of the husbands. “I have no manners!” Scott Barrow’s Alain almost charmingly declares as he reaches, uninvited, for a second serving of apple tart — he then goes on to prove it by yakking incessantly and annoyingly on his cell phone. Not to be outdone, Kevin Cutts as Michel claims to be proud of his Neanderthal qualities and in reverse snobbery makes much of his more working-man job as a housewares distributor vs. Alain’s high-powered role as corporate lawyer for a pharmaceutical giant under fire.

Once the women get their hackles up, and especially after the rum starts to flow, verbal fireworks ignite. “We’re eccentric enough to believe in the soothing attributes of culture,” Veronique sniffs — but there’s no soothing her as she wipes Annette’s vomit off her prized art books. “I believe in the god of carnage. He has ruled since the dawn of time,” says Alain, the lawyer who thrives in a profession where being aggressive and ruthless are positive attributes.

That vicious god certainly seems to be ruling the Vallons’ living room, where the couples spar with each other, the spouses turn on each other, or sometimes gang up in a three-on-one attack. Orchestrating this dance of rapidly shifting alliances is director Samuel Buggeln, a veteran of both Portland Stage and New York theaters. He keeps the action moving at lightning speed as the play barrels along from drawing-room comedy into farce. Along with set designer Daniel Zimmerman, he’s set the Vallon living room on a floor of sand; the metaphor drives home the point that the parents are acting like their combative children in a sandbox — though sometimes I just felt like I was watching the actors slogging through kitty litter. The other artistic choice Buggeln made that I’m not sure I agree with is setting the play in Paris, as it was originally written. Though the actors mention Parisian sites and quote prices in euros, they neither sound nor act European. The disparity is a bit confusing; maybe changing the characters to upper-crust Bostonians would have resonated better with the Maine audience.

Lighting designer Philip Rosenberg does a nice job of darkening the sky as the characters battle their way through a long day’s journey into night. Kathleen Brown, the costume designer, has the actors appropriately dressed in the urban uniform of black-on-black.

Writer Reza is more Seinfeld than Oscar Wilde; the script’s humor is of the “it’s funny 'cause it’s true” variety rather than coming from any great, sparkling wit. Though "God of Carnage" won a Tony Award for Best Play in 2009, I found its ending especially underwhelming, and it left me wishing for a more profound insight from the writer.

But the play is foremost an actor’s vehicle, and this cast — all Equity actors with much experience on Broadway, off-Broadway, touring companies and TV — really shines. The play runs 90 minutes with no intermission; the four actors are on stage all the time, and along with the quick patter have to portray a full gamut of emotions. And oh boy, do they, convincingly and often hilariously. Amid the carnage of their social meeting that's gone completely off the rails, the characters drop their grown-up masks and revert back to their most childish, essential selves — oddly becoming more likeable as their very human flaws are on full display. The process, like any train wreck, is mesmerizing to watch. And you won't want to look away. 


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