The setting of God of Carnage is a sleek, upper-story apartment with a full-wall view of the 14th arrondissement, where wealthy Parisians eat delicate desserts. But it is also a playground, where spoiled brats duke out their rage. At Portland Stage Company, Samuel Buggeln directs a highly stylized production of Yasmina Reza's dark-comedic dig at bourgeois "civilization," in which four cultivated adults in a tasteful home are also id-driven children spatting in a sandbox.
There's no mistaking the metaphor, in PSC's production: Down beneath the room's wood paneling and modern furniture, the floor is, literally, sand. This sand is smooth and perfectly graded when Michel and Veronique Vallon (Kevin Cutts and Kate Udall) first receive visitors Alain and Annette Reille (Scott Barrow and Amy Bodnar), but everyone immediately starts kicking it up. Alain and Annette are here to discuss an altercation between their son and Michel and Véronique's son, but the crumbling of the parents' façade of civil, liberal tolerance is not long in the offing.
Tension builds swiftly — Véronique, who writes about genocide in Africa, keeps returning the conversation to her son's victimhood and nobility; Alain, a lawyer, takes the first of many obnoxious cell calls; Michel shocks Annette with his story of having disposed of the kids' hamster — and soon enough there's vomit on the coffee table. The four proceed to square off against each other in constantly shifting alliances: women against men (over childhood gangs) Annette against Alain (over domestic responsibility), and (most apropos of the play's theme) Véronique, fervent about ending genocide, against Alain, who believes human violence is "a law of life."
In clothing, gesture, and inflection, these characters are drawn unabashedly as types. Véronique's voice is cartoonishly expressive, and there's a clever hint of the faux-tribal in her clothes and jewelry. In contrast, Bodnar's Annette is — at least at first — timid and doll-like on the sofa, widening her eyes in discomfort or apology. As her husband, the fine-boned Barrow has an exquisite suit, a blunt and condescending gaze, and lots of restless tics — he impatiently plays with his feet in the sand as the women talk about order and chaos. The less couth Michel, a wholesaler of bathroom fixtures, has a Brooklyn accent that gets broader as things progress (a nice touch, if odd for Paris; one wonders why PSC didn't chose the American translation of the play, set in Brooklyn).
In Daniel Zimmerman's elegant set design, the Vallons' sand-box living room is nicely situated for their face-offs, with two chairs opposite each other and a sofa for the rapprochements (such as when the women fall against each other on it, guffawing over Alain's sabotaged cell phone). Buggeln keeps their warfare dynamic, and in the later stages goes over the top to stylize the adult-children motif: Alain stomps off to a corner to pout; a drunken Annette plays with a toy dump truck in the sand. The point is assuredly taken, though the gags start to feel like too much of a clever thing: We already have a sandbox. Do we also need Annette making sand angels?