A boy hitting another with a stick becomes the pretext for a wide-ranging discussion of human nature, civilization and the lack thereof in “God of Carnage,” Carpenter Square Theatre's 2012-13 season opener.
Yasmina Reza's play is billed as a comedy, but it comes across more as a disturbing commentary on the tendency of communications to deteriorate, as its title might suggest. Translated by Christopher Hampton, the French author's script, also described as a “comedy of manners without good manners,” received a rousing performance.
Action takes place in the Brooklyn, N.Y., home of Veronica and Michael Novak, whose 11-year-old son, Henry, has had two teeth damaged in an attack by a boy his age in the park “armed with a stick.”
Lilli Bassett and Mike Waugh turned in nicely nuanced but emotionally escalating performances as this seemingly liberal couple, who have invited the parents of the other boy over to discuss the situation.
In early going, Waugh succeeded in communicating the underlying frustrations and tensions of the apparently affable and mild-mannered husband, a seemingly perfect host, while it lasted. By the end of the evening, Waugh was convincingly demented, rediscovering his youthful joy as a gang member and using fine rum to drown his guilt over what he did to his daughter's pet hamster.
But Bassett had some even better moments, both blackly humorous and dramatic, as Veronica, an author and expert on Africa, whose interest is made manifest in her home's tasteful African art objects.
Bassett conveyed Veronica's many contradictions, whether she was coping with vomit on art books, bonding with the mother of her son's attacker, swigging booze from a bottle or standing up to male chauvinism.
Offering an excellent contrast and counterpoint to Waugh and Bassett were Chad Alan Baker and Mona Campbell, who gave as good as they got as the visiting team, Alan and Annette Raleigh.
Baker played a surprisingly sympathetic as well as unsympathetic character as a lawyer defending a pharmaceuticals company, wedded to his cell phone, constantly taking loud, disruptive calls on the case.
Pacing himself well, Baker gave a button-down, controlled, forceful performance, which often made his character's boorish behavior seem reasonable relative to the others. Campbell was an extra humorous loose cannon, causing comic chaos when she dumped Vernoica's precious tulips out of their vases, and doused her husband's cell phone, temporarily disabling it.
Helping keep the play from becoming overwhelmingly bleak was a touching late scene in which Bassett interrupts the onstage mayhem to tell her daughter on the phone, against logic, that her hamster is OK.
Directed by Rhonda Clark, the play, which won Tony and Olivier awards on Broadway and in London, respectively, is gritty, unsettling and contains quite a bit of R-rated language, but is well worth attending.
— John Brandenburg