When communication breaks down, the primal reaction to confrontation is physical. Children, with their still-developing intellect and interpersonal skills, fight more than adults. They don't know how to express themselves and the primitive preset is to strike out against the person troubling you.
But, simply growing up doesn't suddenly bring with it an immunity to childish behavioral patterns, as Yasmina Reza explores in her Tony- and Olivier Award-winning play God of Carnage, carving a hilarious path of destruction across the stage at Circle Theatre.
Henry and Benjamin, all of 11-years-old, got in a fight. Henry would not let Benjamin join his "gang" and thus Benjamin hit Henry with a stick, knocking out two of his teeth. The boys' parents meet to sort everything out. Michael (Mark Fickert), a wholesaler, and Veronica (Lisa Fairchild), a writer currently working on a book about Darfur, are Henry's parents. Alan (Brad Stephens), a Bluetooth-addicted Lawyer, and Annette (Leah Layman), a wealth manager, are Benjamin's.
Alan and Annette have come to the home of Michael and Veronica to make piece. But, what happens is a devolvement from civilized, mature discourse to the kind of ranting and raving expected of children. Indicative of Reza's style, the plot is deceptively simple. It's one scene, one location, four characters with one primary mission. But, like is so often the case in life, everything else is reflected through the lens of this narrow situation to the point it becomes about much more than who started it.
The contrasts between the two couples are obvious from early on, but the differences between the spouses themselves also bubble just below the surface. And the natural human inclination to avoid culpability helps to spiral the simple discussion into issues of politics, socio-economic standing, gender relations and morality in general. Each character is well-defined and distinctive, and Reza even gives all of them a good turn at one point which keeps the audience guessing as to what, if any, finality the events are building to.
The show is demanding of its four actors. The play takes place in a singular, nonstop scene of constantly shifting action. And to that end, this cast acquits themselves impressively.
Best of all is the performance by Fickert. He, arguably, gets the most to play with in terms of character development, but he doesn't waste a moment of it. His turns between the jovial everyman and the meteoric aggressor are deft and funny. His energy is palpable and the emotional center of the piece.
And Fairchild feeds off that energy to create her own fragile manic intensity. Much like Fickert, she goes between extremes several times as the strong, progressive woman and the pouty, emotional little girl. When she reverts to temper tantrums, she creates some of the most humorous moments of the show. And Fairlchild and Fickert together are absolute gold.
Stephens and Layman, as the more uptight couple, don't get to have as much fun with one major exception. Without spoiling the surprise, Layman is called upon to execute a difficult task and nails it. Her immediate shift from snobby confidence to absolute horror is infectious as the audience feels the moment with her.
Which warrants a mention of director Robin Armstrong and properties designer Meredith Hinton. Reza has inserted a difficult stage effect into the show that serves as a grotesque exclamation point to the transformation of the erstwhile mature adults into whiny adolescents, and the execution is flawless. It's a high-value moment in both design and comedy, and it accomplishes both, excruciating as it may be.
Reza has a knack for tapping into the depth of human communication. She's a master of subtext, in other words. She often uses very specific disagreements between people to examine their deeper psychology and motivations. God of Carnage explores the line between public and private, cracking the veneer of the public face everyone puts on for polite society in order to expose the savage still lurking beneath it. And she's able to do it with ample doses of comedy, which make it not just palatable, but enjoyable. For watching this show is guaranteed to elicit resounding waves of laughter; the knowing laughter of an audience that is in on the self-reflexive joke, acknowledging the existing of their own personal God of Carnage.