PRIMAL SCREAM Ferrari, Kraft, Goldsmith, and Ierardi.
Not since Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? have theater audiences been treated to such there-but-for-the-grace-of-marriage-counselors relief over their match not being so bad after all. But Yasmina Reza's four-character God of Carnage doesn't populate the psychological battlefield with one vicious couple and one polite pair; it shows both couples devolving from the latter trait to the former, a far scarier prospect. If social masks were torn off, what menacing expressions would be revealed?
God of Carnage is being staged by Ocean State Theatre Company in Matunuck's Theatre by the Sea (through September 16), in a feisty and smartly imagined production directed by Aimee Turner.
Two couples meet and have a remarkably civilized conversation, which is surprising because the discussion is about one of their 11-year-old boys having significantly injured the other — a whack with a stick knocked out two teeth. However. They relax, bask too long in their self-satisfied amiability, and the sunny fellow feeling turns dark. Someone yanks out the coffee table tulips like a garden gnome run amok; someone else, much later, tries to put some back. At curtain up, we wouldn't have been able to guess either.
An insight into the play is provided by its production history. Written in French and first staged in Germany in 2006 before a Paris run, it was translated by playwright Christopher Hampton (Dangerous Liaisons) for hit runs in London and on Broadway. Obviously, the characters depict not national traits but cultural ones common to every upper middle class, from Providence to Aix-en-Provence.
Though their initial politesse is indistinguishable, the two couples are not identical. The parents of the damaged son are Veronica and Michael Novak (Lisa Ann Goldsmith, Robert Ierardi); her hyper-liberalism is signified by her writing a book on wartorn Darfur, and his down-to-earth perspective is indicated by his being, basically, a hardware salesman. Visitors in their home are Annette Raleigh (Marianne Ferrari), who is "in wealth management," and husband Alan (Kevin Kraft), a corporate lawyer.
We might expect that the lawyer would be litigious, but this play doesn't take predictable opportunities: Alan admits at one point that "our son is a savage," perhaps a projection but conciliatory nevertheless. Nor is money an issue here, since Michael says that insurance will cover the damage, though Alan says to send him the bill.
No, conflicts arise from character issues. The lawyer keeps getting interrupted with cell phone calls he has to take, and it becomes clear to the listeners that the pharmaceutical company he is defending is in the wrong: a drug at issue has a harmful side effect. "Funny job you have," Michael remarks at one point, the innocuous words barbed with accusation. Alan's wife eventually explodes at him about his priorities, letting business come before dealing with this family problem. She has been holding in more than that, though, as the nervous Annette's projectile vomiting, all over the Novaks' precious art books, later indicates.
The real audience satisfactions in this 90-minute intermission-free play come after they start drinking. They never stop. "Courtesy is meaningless," the ultra-courteous Veronica admits. Michael had described how he set an annoying wheel-squeaking hamster "free" outside recently, but only after they're all well-oiled is he condemned for it — he confesses, with some pride, to being a Neanderthal. His wife tries to strangle him, demonstrating her own cavewoman survival skills.