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  • Writer's pictureBen Kemper

God of Carnage

Or: What’s the point of throwing things if you don’t care where they land?

If I were to condense my thoughts on the Jewish Theater Ensemble's God of Carnage I could trot my opinions out in three sentences: Good Comedy. Well Presented. Horrid play.

The action takes place in the well appointed apartment of Michael and Veronica (Brandon Powers and Lucy Ahlborn) who have invited Alan and Annette (Josh Kohane and Laura Winters) to sit down and discuss the possible outcomes of a certain altercation: the later’s son supplanting the teeth of the former’s with a stick. While everyone is conciliatory and sophisticated, at first, the evening soon devolves into a scene of social, yes, carnage, abuse and discord.

The play, originally from the french Le Dieu du carnage by Yasmina Reza would make an ideal Saturday Night Live sketch. It wields humor like a quarterstaff, throwing out jokes from all sorts of unlikely directions, at rapid speed, and, while hardly cutting, lands its jabs in a resounding and cunning sequence designed to raise and further prod the tender bruises of mirth. Many of my fellow audience members were absolutely in stitches, bless them, but for my ownself (card carrying curmudgeon and proud prude that I am) my sharp intakes of revulsion far outnumbered my laughs.

Director Meghan Stanton, in her program note, posits that God of Carnage is a good lesson to those who take themselves too seriously, stating that “it wouldn’t hurt to cut loose every once in a while and say what we’re really thinking”. I could politely argue with her sentiments, but after an hour and a half of watching polite arguments turn ugly, I’m not going to risk it. I will say that God of Carnage, as an introspective play, takes itself far too seriously. Like Norris’s Clybourne Park, it has such fun tearing away and reviling our rituals of politeness and decorum, and showing us all what savages we can turn to given half a chance, that we all feel ashamed and discomforted. That’s not so bad, plays have the right to discomfort, and even to shame on rare occasion, but the insult comes at the end when the play stands before you yelling, “Do you see what I’ve done? The favor I’ve done you?” It makes no attempt to replace what it has torn away, no attempt to create something new from its mess, and yet begs applause for being so authentic, so iconoclastic, so visionary.

It deserves applause perhaps, but not for anything it has to teach us. Stanton and her company have taken their own advice and focused more on the comedy and let on the (anti?) moralism tale tag along as the unwelcome but necessary element: the coleslaw to the sandwich. And what a sandwich it is, Set Designer Dylan Reyno’s apartment facsimile is so quaint and “lived in” that you wince as it is torn apart while Gus Schlanbusch lulls us with prerecorded music representing the best of humanity: the fine sweep of Brahmas and the innocent joy of the Muppets.

The four actors have taken Stanton's direction to heart and have not “taken themselves to seriously”. I thank them for this for they helped increase the comedy, defuse in intended “values coup”, and were in no way sloppy while they did it. Each actor has cornered a certain area of comedy and sticks to one certain kind of humor. Kohane is a remarkable snarker and uses Alan’s well barbed comments (villainous or otherwise) to tear in the most satisfactory manner. Ahlborn swans about like a young Andrea Martin or a fresh Lynn Alison, all wriggling eyebrows, dagger sharp smiles, and storms of (self)righteous indignation. Her plunges from collected woman of society to petulant and/or drunk child, while a trial for the ears, do the heart good, for it’s a pleasure to see an actress plan her fall so collectedly. Winters, though starting from an equally refined ground, takes great delight in the opposite approach: using gorilla attacks of impishness. You never know quite what’s going to come rushing out of her, and she commands her unpredictability to great effect. Powers, who of all these skilled comedians collected the most laughs, bundles his way about the stage, smiling too broadly, speaking too quickly, taking delight in and issue with too many weird things (and in this one case “too” equals “just right”). I’d love to see this man play On the Razzle or some other Stoppard creation, and watch him row his way through plays that affirm as well as delight.

Exiting God of Carnage, smiling at the recollection of a comedy well done and fuming at the metaphorical cream pie of nihilism shoved in my face, I found myself craving Shakespeare’s Scottish Play as an antidote to my ill humor. MacB and his Lady go through much the same de-veneering as Reza’s couples and it can be said Shakespeare’s characters and their futures contain even less hope and chances for redemption than Reza’s. But unlike God of Carnage the Scottish play is a good gripping story about good people going bad and paying the piper for it, and gently offers us some measure of instruction for our own betterment, even if it’s as simple as ‘don’t kill your anointed king and house guest, no matter how much you may want to’. Since no Maccers is in sight this evening, I shall content myself with picking the gold from the dross and resolve my feelings with a quote lovingly repurposed from Rossini, “God of Carnage has some beautiful moments, but bad quarters of an hour.”

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