Let's be honest, there are probably more plays written about people having arguments in upper-middle class New York apartments than there are actual upper-middle class apartments in New York. And that's fine, but generally, I don't much care for plays about New Yorkers unless they're being staged in New York. And even more generally, I don't prefer plays set in living rooms where small groups of people gather together under some contrived pretense so that the playwright can use them as mouthpieces to offer differing highly-informed and timely commentary on upper-middle class society.
So, needless to say, I was really delighted to find that, Theatre Knoxville Downtown's excellent presentation of the Broadway hit, God of Carnage has forced me make an exception in the genre for this funny, pointed, and expertly realized comedy.
The action concerns two couples discussing how to proceed after their young boys get into a fight on the playground. From that very simple premise, playwright Yasmina Reza's witty and fast-paced script skillfully chips away at the various facades exhibited by members of polite society; exposing the petulance, hypocrisy, selfishness, and arrogance laying just below the surface.
The entire ensemble is to be congratulated for elegantly navigating the ever-shifting personal allegiances and balances of power that drive both the conflict and humor of the piece. These are characters we know from our own lives, that we've all met and had over for dinner. They are characters that each of us can recognize as being like ourselves in our least proud moments. And while the humor and breakneck pace of the show never allows the audience to linger on the sadness off the situation, you can't help but respond to each characters' valiant attempt to overcome their surfacing loneliness and insecurity as one by one the thin veneers of social convention are striped away by copious amounts of liquor, pent up frustrations, and open conflict.
It is easy to see why Jeffery Eberting was asked to reprise his 2013 portrayal of corporate litigator, Alan. Eberting deftly walks a fine line, managing to keep us relatively sympathetic to his character while still remaining the primary engine of the play's conflict. At first, Eberting presents Alan as every bit the brash high-powered professional the audience expects, (constantly parsing other characters' language, interrupting conversations with incessant phone calls, etc), but over the course of the evening, Eberting adds clarity and depth to the role, gradually revealing that Alan's actions are more than the symptoms of an unpleasant personality; they are the affectations of an uncertain man constantly needing to reaffirm his own status both to himself and everyone around him.
Watching Carrie Booher-Thompson's Annette struggle mightily between her character's desire to remain a supportive partner to Alan, and her ever-mounting disdain for the man that he has become, is a real joy to witness. As Annette powers through several bouts of stress induced nausea, it is really gratifying to see Booher-Thompson exhibit the dramatic effects of her character's waxing and waning physical and mental fortitude. In a show where there isn't much room for action, Booher-Thompson manages to fully inhabit the entire space and deliver the most visceral performance of the night.
Equally enjoyable and serving as a nice counterpoint, is the rich subtlety that Crystal Braeuner brings to her portrayal of Veronica. At first glance Veronica, like Alan, seems a very clearly defined type of character: an academic specializing in various African cultures. It's a role that requires a deft hand to prevent from becoming exceedingly one dimensional, but Braeuner pulls it off admirably, delivering a host of understated moments that illuminate her character's passive-aggressive nature and growing moral indignation. Likewise her reactions to several of the play's more outlandish situations offer some excellent comedic nuggets for those paying close attention.
Jim Conn rounds out the cast as Veronica's husband Michael who is at turns conciliatory and combative, loyal husband and would-be man's man. Conn's earnest, forthright presentation refuses to telegraph where his character is headed next, so that we are never sure exactly on which side of the argument he will land. In fact, sometimes he seems to land on both sides at the same time. But, Conn doesn't overdo the contradiction, he speaks the text honestly and simply, fully committing to the role's inherent vacillations with some very enjoyable results.
Having such a skilled cast at his disposal, director Greg Congleton rightly seems to have steered them toward the more difficult and more rewarding humor to be found in keeping pace with the play's non-stop lightening fast shifts in loyalty and evolving power struggles. Under his direction the audience gets to sit back and enjoy watching the not-so-gradual but never overt regression of each character as one by one the social constructs of courtesy, legality, marriage, gender, ideology, and morality, fall away, leaving everyone in a state of near childishness. But, that being said, Congelton certainly doesn't shy away from the tried and true humor to be found in angry spouses shouting at each other, indignant parents hurling insults, men with wounded pride, and... vomit.
Congleton who also designed the set does an admirable job of combining simplicity with style. Entering the space, we are presented with just enough to evoke the stark upscale apartment setting and nothing else. With its grey walls adorned with a few empty gray picture frames, Congleton refuses to provide us with anything about the lives of the characters, or give us any hint about who we should be rooting for. The result is that our opinions must be formed in real time as we receive each bit of new information. I found it to be the most fitting use of Theatre Knoxville Downtown's space that I have seen this season.
At the end of the day, TKD's God of Carnage is a fine piece of high quality comedy that isn't afraid to offer some thoughtful insights for those interested in listening, but which avoids pretentiousness at every turn, and serves first and foremost as an excellent evening of entertainment that is well worth the price of admission.
You have four more chances to catch God of Carnage this week Sept 7 - Sept. 10 at Theatre Knoxville Downtown. Tickets can be purchased from TKD's website here.