Updated: Jun 20
“Ready to Crack Like Dime-Store Pottery”
Never underestimate the pleasure of watching really good actors behaving terribly. Of course you can experience such a spectacle every year around the Tony Awards.
But there is a more sophisticated version of this spectator sport, in which highly skilled stage performers take on roles that allow them to rip the stuffing out of one another, tear up the scenery, stomp on their own vanity and have the time of their lives.
That’s what Aimee Guichard, Keith Bush, Garret Replogle and Shayanne Ortiz are up to at The Wayward Artist, where Yasmina Reza's“God of Carnage” opened last Friday night under the extremely savvy direction of Sarah Ripper. And their performances in Ms. Reza’s streamlined anatomy of the human animal incite the kind of laughter that comes from the gut, as involuntary as hiccups or burping.
Examined coldly, this 90-minute play about two couples who meet to discuss a playground fight between two of their children isn’t much more than a sustained Punch and Judy show, dressed to impress with sociological accessories.
But there’s a reason that Punch and Judy’s avatars have fascinated audiences for so many centuries in cultural forms, low (“The Honeymooners” of 1950s television), and high (Edward Albee’s 1962 drama “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”).
“God of Carnage,” which is poised somewhere in between, definitely delivers the cathartic release of watching other people’s marriages go boom. A study in the tension between civilized surface and savage instinct, Reza's Olivier-Award winning play is itself a satisfyingly primitive entertainment of algebraic precision to lonely, frightened ids. All performed with an intellectual veneer.
Her subjects, those two sets of parents who reside in the Cobble Hill neighborhood of Brooklyn, are Alan (Mr. Replogle), a smug corporate lawyer, and Annette (Ms. Ortiz), a “wealth manager,” who visits the apartment of Michael (Mr. Bush), a hardware entrepreneur, and Veronica (Ms. Guichard), an author who specializes in Africa’s artistic resources, to discuss how best to deal with a common problem.
Alan and Annette’s son has hit Michael and Veronica’s son with a stick, breaking two of his teeth. The grown-ups have gathered to discuss, logically and amiably, how to deal with the boys. “Fortunately,” says Veronica, the loftiest-minded of the lot, “there is still such a thing as the art of coexistence, isn’t there?”
Of course there’s not. Fissures in the friendliness are evident from the get-go, as the couples sip espresso, sample Veronica’s clafouti and ooh and ah over art books. The question is how long before the fault lines split open altogether, allowing free rein to “the god of carnage,” whom Alan, an executive shark type, admits proudly to believe in.
Ms. Reza links the spouses’ degeneration to a larger picture of a feral dog-eat-dog world. The cellphone calls that Alan keeps taking without apology have to do with damage control for a pharmaceutical giant’s African wonder drug that has turned into a problem. Veronica, coincidentally a specialist in African culture is writing a book on “the Darfur tragedy.”
But the play is far more interesting, and subtle, in its shifting ballet of emotions and loyalties among its fractious quartet. The sly, slick dialogue, farcical detours and potent pauses of their civilized get-together soon turn into the rambunctious melee that brings out each one's hidden resentments, insecurities and savagery. It was impossible to pick a favorite.
As rum replaces coffee and outer garments are removed, sides of combat blur. The men gang up on the women, the women gang up on the men, and the husbands and wives wind up, briefly, changing partners, though only as allies in war. The escalating scene begins with the characters regarding their spouses as guaranteed confederates, and it ends with all of them realizing that they’re on their own.
At the same time there are throughout enough instances of small acts of helpfulness and kindness to keep the play from being a blunt broadside. “People struggle until they’re dead,” Alan observes. And to his credit, “God of Carnage” sees that struggle as more than exclusively hostile.
The players are a marvelously giving, balanced ensemble. And each has bits of inspired invention that you tuck away into your memory file of classic stage moments: Mr. Bush, as Michael, ingenuously defending cruelty to a pet hamster or conscientiously holding a blow dryer to damaged art books in droll geniality; Ms. Guichard solemnly wrestling for control of the rum bottle; Ms. Ortiz’ nausea-prone character toting a wine bucket like a worried toddler; and Mr. Replogle abandoning all etiquette and obliviously shoveling down clafouti while talking on the phone.
As Director Ripper astutely positions the actors so that the spotlight moves seamlessly from one to the other, each actor is a star, whether in a solo turn or as an active or silent member of the ensemble. The performances are as precise as a string quartet that's been playing together for years. Full credit goes to Director Ripper, who seems to know full well that words are to physical comedy what step-by-step drawings of footprints are to dancing. It’s the bodies in motion that count. Right now, Ms. Ripper heads the list as a working director who best understands the higher mathematics of farce.
Basically, “God of Carnage” sees through the veneer of good manners to the animal inside, where you may find the collapse of civilization in Veronica’s forced smile, ready to crack like dime-store pottery, and the first burst of revolution in the Alien-like moment when an anxious Annette, sick with nerves, or more likely on her hosts' homemade apple pear cobbler, violently spews all over the stage, onto pretentious Veronica's coffee table and her treasured old books of Kokoschka paintings, all the while retaining a certain ladylike, business executive decorum.
Alan's relentless focus on his cell phone and smarmy meanderings around the law as he deals with a pharmaceutical client's legal troubles puts a frothy, neurotic spin on homemaker-unwisely-turned-sophisticate Annette that gorgeously crumbles as their meeting careens. And Ms. Guichard’s dry-throated desperation makes Veronica's pronouncements about everything from playground bullying to Darfur sound like a strangled - but nonetheless carefully calculated - cry for help, where Michael is more thoughtful, almost cerebral, underscoring how he views every second of life according to a plan.
This sets the tone next when the Raleighs would cascade down the hill of propriety and demolish practically everything in their wake - including the coarse-but-trying Michael and Veronica and, eventually, themselves.
The couples were obviously at war before the curtain went up, with words and disapproving glances and whatever else defining their relationship long before we meet them. So many blood-curdling silences occur even within the chummiest exchanges in the opening minutes that you instantly know that nothing anyone says about anything may be taken at face value. So each character becomes defined solely by the impact he or she has on the other three, which only pushes everyone to dizzying new heights of combative cluelessness - and the cast to comic perfection.
Working cohesively, the production team consists of Set Designer Daniel Espinoza, Lighting Designer Kristen Peck and Prop Master Natalie Silva, along with Costume Designer Sara Bowie and Sound Designer Lauren Zuiderveld, and has created an eloquent blend of the chthonic - blood-red and dull gray split-level walls, civilized, minimalist furniture (with exquisite vases of tulips), subdued, natural lighting and perfect costuming. The show’s very look predicts what’s going to happen, and you can almost imagine in advance where those tulips will wind up.
“God of Carnage,” playing through November 17th at The Wayward Artist, Grand Central Art Center, Santa Ana. Shows are at 2pm and 7:30pm. Times, dates and ticketing information is available at: www.thewaywardartist.org
The Show Report
Photography Credit: Jordan Kubat Photography