For the second play in its season of “The Other,” Princeton Summer Theater has chosen Yasmina Reza’s knotty comedy, “God of Carnage.” The “otherness” of this darkly funny play calls to mind Jean-Paul Sartre’s famous line from his play, “No Exit,” “L'enfer, c'est les autres,” which translates to “Hell is other people.”
Ms. Reza, a French playwright who delights in riling audiences, sets her four characters in a comfortable New York living room. There, the confined space becomes a sort of posh mental wrestling ring.
Some critics think the playwright’s methods are manipulative, but she walks away with so many prizes that’s it’s hard to argue. “God of Carnage” garnered Tonys in its Broadway debut, and it continues to be performed in several languages worldwide.
Actors love her scripts. No wonder — she’s a former actor herself, and she had advanced training in a world-renowned clown college. She knows what turns actors on. As rendered into English by her favored translator Christopher Hampton (“Dangerous Liaisons”), they get to speak delicious lines and to hurl props, among other things.
While “God of Carnage” is funny, it’s a nervous funny that’s very close to the bone. Ms. Reza writes what she thinks might be a unique genre, “funny tragedy,” which demands much of actors, who are trying to tread a fine line.
It’s a four-character comedy on one modest set. Two very proper Manhattan couples are meeting to amicably seek closure on a playground incident between their two grade-school sons. Veronica and Michael (Olivia Nice and Jake McCready) are drawing up a joint statement describing how the son of Annette and Alan (Maddie Meyers and Billy Cohen) whacked their son in the face with a stick and injured his teeth.
Everyone is so polite and reasonable, especially considering that Alan is a high-powered attorney. Every few minutes his cell phone rings from a client who is trying to fend off lawsuits that will result from a drug that has been improperly tested. When Alan begins parsing words in the couples’ joint statement, we sense the civility will not last. Veronica says “disfigured” for her boy’s injuries, and “weapon” for the stick. Alan objects.
By degrees the gloves come off, figuratively, and barbs fly, interrupted by Alan’s phone calls from his client (annoying Annette), with equally interruptive calls from Michael’s hospitalized mother, who’s worried about her grandkids and about her medications. After one exasperating exchange with mother, Michael imagines her cremated remains next to those of his father: “Two urns looking out to sea, trying to get a word in edgewise.”
Fitful attempts to restore civility only ratchet things up. Once the pretense has vanished on both sides and the benign servings of coffee and homemade clafoutis (a French dessert) give way to liberal helpings of vintage rum, the alliances shift. The males bond over their shared savageness and their fond remembrance of the gangs they once led. Veronica, who tries to instill a sense of “morality” into the proceedings — she supports groups trying to solve the genocide in Darfur — is disparaged. Alan says, “Women who are the custodians of the world depress us.” The problem is, “Women think too much.”
The couples play at being adults, even while they are more childlike than the children they’re trying to guide in right behavior. What happened to the virtues of forgiveness, of accepting responsibility for one’s actions? We are all up there on the stage, seeing ourselves stripped of our pretensions.
As directed by Annika Bennett, the actors pay special attention to the silences between verbal bouts — you can imagine the mental wheels grinding as each character sizes up the situation and thinks of the next tack. There are some hilarious physical moments as well, which the actors revel in. Annette and Alan’s wrestling over the rum bottle is especially funny.
We judge the characters by their relation to those who are not on stage — the two boys and Alan’s mother. By those lights, the generation in charge comes up short. Ms. Reza writes her plays as little morality tales. If so, what’s the moral? That’s up in the air as the proverbial curtain rings down. This play depends on actors and directors being very sensitive to the shifting alliances and the progressively naked exchanges between the characters. Everyone in the ensemble does a terrific job in keeping the choreography tight (you might say this is a choreographed piece).
It’s a very funny show with some shocking surprises (little jolts that Ms. Reza tossed in for effect). Even if you’ve seen this before (as I have), it takes on a different dimension with each new production. Catch this provocative playwright while you still can.
“God of Carnage” continues at the Murray Hall Theatre on the Princeton University Campus, July 7 -10. For information and tickets, go to princetonsummertheater.org or call 732-997-0205.