“The God of Carnage” — the name sounds like a video game, one of those in which the hero wanders through strange landscapes blowing up every creature he sees before it has a chance to blow him up.
In reality, however, Yazmina Reza’s entire one-act play, “God of Carnage,” takes place in a living room that bears all the marks of civilization: art on the walls, art books on the coffee table, and even a vase of fresh tulips. Gathered around it are four supremely advanced humans, two couples who have come together to discuss an inexplicable calamity: Benjamin, 11, son of Annette and Alan Raleigh, armed with a stick recently hit Harry, also 11, and the son of Veronica and Michael Novak.
Also present in the room are mobile phones, a laptop and a bar, but whether these are evidence of civilization or of its downward spiral remains open to debate as the evening progresses.
June Alane Reif, well known on the stage of Napa Valley Playhouse (formerly Dreamweavers) has assembled a flawless cast for this dark comedy, which opened Friday and plays through Feb. 24.
On one side of the room we have Alan and Annette, played by Linda Howard and Zachary Stockton. He is a lawyer, addicted to his phone, who creates an droll subplot in which he instructs his best client, a pharmaceutical company, on how to deal with bad publicity owing the possibility that their drug is living up to all the dire warnings they post for it.
Prim Annette is “in wealth management,” a statement she murmurs the same way one might announce she is “in therapy,” or “in a traffic jam in New Jersey.” One assumes the wealth she is managing is that which her husband generates by bailing out the drug company.
On the opposing chairs are Veronica and Michael, played by Christina Julian and Nathan Day. Michael is a wholesale dealer, selling everything from pots and pans to toilet fixtures. Veronica is a writer, working on a book on Darfur.
Veronica is the leader, the organizer of this meeting. Precise to a pin, she speaks a form of politically correct academic babble, generally offensive when it is intelligible. She is intent on managing the unpleasantness as perfectly as possible. To this end, she has even made a clafouti, a French cake baked with fruit, and much of the introductory conversation revolves around a discussion of how she managed to combine apples and pears in one clafouti.
Clafouti and espresso mark the high point of the meeting. In short order, harmony, gentility and the characters themselves begin to disintegrate. This might begin when Michael recounts a story of abandoning a hamster on the city streets, or when Alan, in between phone calls, offers up the idea that his son is a monster and went after Harry because he wasn’t admitted into a gang. Or it might be when Annette, nauseated by either the clafouti or her husband’s phone addiction, vomits all over the coffee table books. The latter is quite an impressively realistic scene.
“God of Carnage” premiered in France, and was translated into English for its London debut. It was a hit on Broadway when it opened in 2009. Some critics describe the plot as portraying the parents becoming childlike themselves. But as the men bond over a bottle of fine rum, and the women go into meltdowns, it seemed to me to be, that we were, rather, watching a lone day’s journey into the Stone Age. It’s hard to decide who takes the loopy prize. Is it ranting Veronica, stripped of her PC mask and obfuscating babble, or Annette, who does, after all, try to down the mobile in the vase of tulips? Or is it Alan, bereft of his phone, sitting forlornly on the floor, or Michael, trying valiantly to blow dry it? Each, in turn, is splendid.
Truth is balanced with humor, or perhaps, the humor lies in the truth that these nutty as a bag of macadamia characters are not so far removed from their prehistoric, stick-wielding ancestors. At any rate, this cast is so finely tuned, their brouhaha provides an entertaining evening.
You might even be inspired to go home and bake a clafouti. Just remember that if you really want to combine apples and pears, you need to cut the pears thicker because apples take longer to bake. Or something like that.