The Off-Broadway Theatre Review: TBTB’s God of Carnage at Theatre Row
“I didn’t mean to be rude,” is the line that probably could be said throughout God of Carnage, the complicated and combative play written with true force by Yasmina Reza (Art) and translated by Christopher Hampton (The Father). Currently being produced by Theater Breaking Through Barriers, an off-Broadway theatre company founded in 1979 to advance the work of professional artists with disabilities, flings forth the interaction and intersection of two couples and parents that have found themselves dealing with one another because of an altercation on the playground between their sons. It’s a gathering of sorts, that puts each character on trial, one way or another, desperately trying to be civilized, while slowly unraveling before our very eyes.
Directed somewhat simply by Nicholas Viselli, the artistic director of TBTB, the cast rides the wave of this deliberate play as if the play is what is actually driving the action, rather than the undercurrent of its complicated meaning and delivery. Played almost too straightforwardly by a cast of four, the direction never unearths the animalistic tendencies underneath the skin of its characters. It plays on the edge of the abyss without taking the risk of really seeing what’s underneath the surface. It’s the underbelly of this beast where the true Neanderthal lies, and if the play is led by its language, then it never gets as bloody as it needs to be.
After an interesting unpacking via subtitles and descriptions, delivered with purpose by TBTB, on a well-appointed set by Bert Scott (TBTB’s Brecht on Brecht), with deliberate costuming by Olivia Vaughn Hern (“It’s a Dog“) and a well-formulated lighting and projection design by Samuel J. Biondolillo (Off-Broadway’s How to Live), one couple arrives at the home of Michael, played by Gabe Fazio (St. Clement’s Spring Storm), and Veronica, dynamically portrayed with spirit by Christiane Noll (Encores’ 1776). The hosts seem tense, but determined to unpack the meaning of the altercation between their sons, while the other parents; Alan, statically portrayed David Burtka (Sam Mendes/Broadway’s Gypsy), and Annette, played by disabled actor Carey Cox (Guthrie’s The Glass Menagerie), seem at odds with one another. It’s pretty clear, almost too clear, that Alan would rather be on his phone and in an office far away from this discussion, while, at first, Annette works hard at being present and engaged with the discussion.
As the details of the altercation are unpacked, the tension builds. It seems Alan and Annette’s eleven-year-old son, after being called a name by the son of Michael and Veronica, hit the other with a stick, causing some pretty severe-sounding damage to his teeth. The parents begin, quite intently, to discuss the matter in a civilized manner, but as the evening’s debate rambles onward, the four parents increasingly become almost childlike themselves, taking aim at one another with loaded words. The play blurs the edges of civility, with racism, homophobia, and misogyny raising their ugly heads as the meeting devolves into chaos, vomiting, and pillow bashing.
This production of God of Carnage follows the path of least resistance, while never really finding the flame underneath. Noll, as Veronica, finds the underbelly of the beast better than anyone else on that stage, twisting and turning in her subtext with a deft grace that the others, especially Burtka, fail to unpack. It never really rises to the occasion by floundering too deeply in the dirt and mud of the adult playground that is their living room. It stays a bit too tidy even as the vomit projects out into the space ruining the semblance of normality. Only at that moment does Burtka’s Alan look up from his phone and gleefully engage in the chaos. That kind of reaction is what is needed more by all throughout. Otherwise the God of Carnage never really rises up beyond the civilized superficiality of the room.