Nothing humanizes like vomit. It’s pretty much the same routine for all of us. First, pretending everything’s fine and knowing everything’s not. Then gagging and fighting back the spew as we search for an an appropriate place to spill our guts until we're no longer able to contain it and surrender to wave after body-wracking wave of puke. And then finally, after all of the sputtering and the splattering, after thinking you’ve reached the lowest point of your entire life, there is catharsis.
It’s really not a terrible metaphor for God of Carnage, a deceptively ambitious one act by Art playwright Yasmina Reza, that’s getting a healthy workout at Playhouse on the Square through April 1. It’s a play about parenting, art, good pastry, excellent rum and the wonders of modern living. It’s also about how goddamn horrible most people really are, especially the civilized ones.
Much has been made of the live onstage puking in this show. Too much probably, considering how beautifully the gross-out comedy fits into this otherwise cerebral work, and how much more there is to talk about.
Carnage is unrelenting. It opens with two bright, white, upper-middle-class couples trying to agree on the language that best describes an altercation between their pre-teen boys. Was the child armed with a stick or was he furnished with a stick? Did he aggressively disfigure the other child or did he lash out because he felt threatened by the other child’s gang? And so on. It’s a painful, painfully funny exercise showing how, people can agree on words, and still be speaking two completely different languages.
Anybody who’s watched the news recently will be instantly reminded of the Trayvon Martin shooting, and the punditry’s countless interpretations of only a few known facts.
Gathered in the room: An attorney for a large pharmaceutical company who is constantly on his cell phone; his wife who works in wealth management; also the apparently liberal author of a book about the Darfur genocide and her not so liberal husband, a businessman who sells practical household items like pots and pans. They are all impossible and, once you scratch beyond the surface, extremely difficult people to like.
Reza’s play isn’t entirely realistic. It’s difficult to imagine that any of these beastly people would actually spend an hour-and-a-half together. After the first ugly impasse most would probably call it a day and let their attorneys do the talking. But the Big Pharma lawyer— nicely underplayed by Michael Gravois— says he believes in a “God of carnage.” And, as one might expect from such a believer, he actually seems to enjoy the conflict. When things heat up he ignores his phone and becomes animated, and engaged.
The cast is a director’s dream. Gravois is joined onstage by Erin Shelton, Kim Justis, and Barclay Roberts, and they all do exceptional work. Irene Crist, who most recently directed Circle Mirror Transformation at Theatre Memphis might have insisted on a faster pace and crisper performances, but instead she lets the show sprawl. And with this cast, why not let them indulge a little?
God of Carnage plays out like like some intense chamber quartet that breaks down into solos, duets, trios, as the couples square off against one another, new alliances form, old partnerships break apart, and everything settles back roughly where it began.
Comparisons have been made to Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, and to Jean Paul Sartre’s No Exit, both of which strongly put forward the notion that Hell is other people. And at times God of Carnage does seem like some delightfully nauseating offspring of these two classics. But I’m going to take an oversimplified view of the play, and assume—as many have—that Reza’s script is merely a descent into childishness. It’s the same kind of childishness William Golding depicted in his brutal masterpiece The Lord of the Flies, suggesting that even the most civilized people can fall, almost instantly, into savagery.
If you like good theater don’t let the threat of puke keep you away. God of Carnage is one of the best shows you’ll see all season.
God of Carnage is at Playhouse on the Square through April 1.