One thing about a Yasmina Reza play: By the end, masks will be ripped off and something mildly disastrous is going to happen. Another thing about a Yasmina Reza play: Even when things get uncomfortable (maybe even especially when they get uncomfortable) it’s going to be pretty darned funny.
Reza, the French playwright best-known for her hits Art and God of Carnage, is also a latter-day practitioner of the well-made play, that marvel of construction in which a thousand pieces fly into the air, chaotically, and then fall perfectly into place. Her 2009 Tony-winner God of Carnage, which opened over the weekend in a taut and smart revival at Lakewood Theatre, takes a bit of Noel Coward (the “aren’t these upper-middle-class characters delightfully foolish” part) and a bit of Harold Pinter (the “aren’t these upper-middle-class characters ruthlessly savage” part), stirs them with a little Alan Ayckbourn-style tick-tock timing, and comes up with a rollicking escapist entertainment that leaves an existential knot in the pit of your stomach. Well, that’s them, you might tell yourself a little nervously as you head home after the show. That’s not me. Surely not.
Director Antonio Sonera, working from playwright Christopher Hampton’s sharp and brittle English translation, expertly puts the pedal to the metal in this hairpin race over the cliff by two sets of nominally civilized couples. Sonera indulges in what might be considered stunt casting if the four actors weren’t individually so good at what they do: The married couples are played by performers actually married in real life. David Sikking and Marilyn Stacey are Michael and Veronica Novak, he a successful hardware wholesaler, she an art lover and liberal firebrand who is working on a book about Darfur. Sarah Lucht and Don Alder are Annette and Alan Raleigh; he’s a high-powered lawyer who can’t stay off his cell phone, she’s in expensive shoes and wealth management. If only wealth were all that needed managing around here.
The Raleighs are visiting the Novaks because their sons have got into a playground fight, and young Raleigh’s knocked out a couple of young Novak’s teeth with a stick. The boys are never seen. Their parents are meeting, ostensibly, to sort out the boys’ troubles in an adult and civilized way – espressos and clafoutis are served – except that nobody, with the possible exception of Veronica, really wants to be there. As the evening moves on and the adults grow more and more infantile, you might find yourself half-hoping the kids’ll walk onstage and whack all four of them with a stick. Such is the progress of civilization.
Unlike Art, in which conflicting views on the quality or absurdity of an expensive all-white painting lead to fisticuffs, the violence in God of Carnage remains emotional and verbal. But, my, does it erupt. And Sonera’s four actors are adept at making it seem at once real and a satiric exaggeration of the fragile veneer of civilization over the inner savagery of the human beast. The humor rises from exposing the tissue of lies the characters tell themselves and each other to carry on the pretense of humaneness. Yes, that is funny, in a doleful, dyspeptic way.
Reza’s four successful characters are etched in acid, with a little sugar coating to ease the burn. Everything’s played at a bravado pitch, emphasizing the forced joviality that is gradually (and sometimes suddenly) torn to tatters. Stacey’s the conciliator, the organizer, the smoother-out, until she’s not. Sikking’s the hail-fellow well-met, for a while. Lucht is witty and a little superior and very funny in her unfortunate breakdown. Alder is the closest to the surface of humankind’s ruthless core, a tough strategist manipulating the ugly truth about a client’s dangerous product, and oddly likable for his forthrightness about it. All four, ultimately, are in it on their own. Alliances shift and reshape. One couple against the other couple. Men against women, women against men. Mate against mate, and back again. Sometimes politics makes estranged bedfellows.
As usual at Lakewood, technical credits are good, with an experienced and talented crop of designers. The contemporary-shelter-magazine set is by John Gerth, costumes by Jami Chatalas Blanchard, lighting by Peter West, slyly amusing sound design by Rodolfo Ortega. God of Carnage has one of the more complex and creative upchuck scenes in the theatrical repertoire, and I’m assuming the credit for making it all fly right goes to properties master Sarah Andrews. Funny stuff, all right. Cleanup on Aisle Nine. Believe me, everyone needs it.
God of Carnage continues through April 9 at Lakewood Theatre, in the Lakewood Center for the Arts, Lake Oswego. Schedule and ticket information here.