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May 10, 2012

'God of Carnage' gets brilliant production at Signature Theatre

Long before the projectile vomiting, and long after, suppressed feelings and uneasy thoughts are spewed all over the set in Signature Theatre's searing production of Yasmina Reza's "God of Carnage."

The stains get harder and harder to remove.

This Tony-winning play (which gets its Baltimore premiere next season, thanks to Everyman Theatre) takes what seems like a routine sitcom setup and runs with it brilliantly.

The plot centers on two sets of parents -- the Novaks and the Raleighs -- brought together for the first time because their young sons had a bruising fight.

The financially well-off, terribly polite couples are determined to display their breeding, to find a politically correct way of dealing with the incident and moving on.

Of course, you know right away that ...

these adults are going to end up acting more like children than children (to borrow a phrase), but Reza keeps adding killer spice and detours to the process, creating 90 exceptionally volatile, absorbing minutes of theater that can keep an audience as much on edge as the characters.

At least those of us out in the dark get to laugh a lot -- the humor in the work is delicious, alternately wry and wounding, mental and physical. There's no disguising the dark side of this comedy, though.

Watching the breakdown in civility sure can get uncomfortable as "God of Carnage" (translated from the French by Christopher Hampton) unfolds, first dealing with the presumed issue of kids misbehaving and then moving into one parental indiscretion after another.

Once the clafouti flies and the rum starts to flow, the center just will not hold. Things that shouldn't be said out loud slip out, changing the dynamics and the alliances.

The tension between the two couples is bad enough as each side tries to settle on which kid bears the most responsibility, has the biggest lesson to learn, from the fight.

But with each slip of the tongue, even with each ring of a phone, the ground shifts a little more until the couples go from being at odds with each other to being at odds within each other, husband against wife. It even becomes men against the women before the confrontation is over.

In the end, it all adds up to a pretty damning indictment of what passes for sophisticated society. The play holds up a great big mirror, catching way too many of us in its reflection.

The Signature Theatre production shines from the get-go. James Kronzer's meticulous set provides a deliciously sleek place for the action, which has been directed with a flair for timing and nuance by Joe Calarco.

The cast achieves the kind of tight ensemble essential for such a compact, bracing work. Naomi Jacobson, in particular, is terrific as Veronica Novak, the high-art loving writer with an all-too-readily expressed concern for Darfur and the mother of the boy who got clobbered.

Jacobson can get teary-eyed in a way that invariably rings true; she can turn steely and aggressive just as persuasively.

She's effective matched by Andy Brownstein as Veronica's husband Michael, the down-to-earth wholesaler who dons a sweater to look more like a liberal. The actor is especially telling when, sweater off, the truths  start bubbling to the surface.

Vanessa Lock likewise shines when she gets to reveal the frustrations behind the cool facade of Annette Raleigh, the woman with a tendency to get nauseous (pity all the lovely things in the Novak home that end up getting sprayed).

Paul Morella, as Annette's snide, high-powered, cell phone-dependent spouse Alan, holds his own in the fray, vividly completing this alternately sympathetic and gruesome foursome.

"God of Carnage" runs through June 24.


Posted by Tim Smith at 3:34 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Drama Queens

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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