If you’re among the Daily News readers who gets a grin from the daily “Bliss” panel on the comics page, you’ll probably enjoy “God of Carnage” mightily. The Tony Award-winning play, now being presented at Sydney Laurence Theatre by Perseverance Theatre, brims with acid wit and sarcastic insight as playwright Yasmina Reza peels away the veneer of social convention to assert her key point: People are beasts.
Set in a single tight act, this version of “Carnage,” in Christopher Hampton’s translation, takes place in an upper-class drawing room in New York. (Written in French, the play’s locale and even the names of the characters changes depending on the language and nation where it’s presented, which is immaterial with regard to the content; for most Alaskans the people in this play might as well be wearing powdered wigs and living in 18th century Versailles.) Two couples meet to discuss an altercation between their sons and we get the basic facts of the incident in nearly the first word. One 11-year-old has struck another with a stick causing dental damage.
Both sets of parents try to position this spontaneous act of playground violence in the best possible light for their son using the most civil tone they can muster. That lasts about a minute before cracks appear and finger pointing takes over. The parents of the victim expect an apology; the parents of the perp suggest that there might be two victims. The polite colloquy quickly devolves into snark and physicality.
Friday’s sizeable opening night crowd seemed tuned into the humor and brilliance of Reza’s writing. Two lines seldom passed without drawing a chuckle form one part of the audience or the other — often chuckles with an edge of discomfort as comedy elided with its most essential partner, truth. Dark truth in this instance.
For this kind of art to work — a single set and just four actors — requires the highest of theatrical standards from both the performers and production staff, wonderfully evident in the Perseverance “Carnage.” Director Pirronne Yousefzadeh times the rapid exchanges and inflections with the smoothness of a string quartet. The actors are at the top of their game. Allison Holtkamp is a “wealth manager” who counts on everyone liking her and is the first brick in the façade to give way when it turns out that likability and honesty aren’t always compatible; James Sullivan is an up-from-the-blue-collar-world housewares distributor who is fed up with having to hide his true nature from his wife and her friends; Brandon Demery is a corporate lawyer who makes no bones about his faith in a cruel God whose creation is governed by fang and claw; and Annia Wyndham is his primary foil as a woman who professes the virtues of art, charity, culture and refined civilization but is perhaps the most efficient predator in the group.
Over the course of just over an hour, these four parry and thrust, forming and dissolving Machiavellian alliances in their increasingly frantic attempts to justify themselves even at the expense of appearances, their marriages, their children. As the lawyer notes, rhetorically: Do we really care about anyone except ourselves?
The answer in “Carnage” is a clear “No,” which may be a flaw. A serious conversation would need to acknowledge that there are saints among us, perhaps even a little sainthood in each of us, that cooperation may have as many or more benefits as competition and be no less necessary to survival or progress
“Carnage,” however, does not seem intended to be terribly serious, but instead funny on an elegant and cerebral level, like a 90-minute New Yorker cartoon. For some theater-goers such a heavily conversational entertainment may seem dull or pointless. They will find the script talky and impossible and the core message, kind of a retelling of “Lord of the Flies,” simplistic and unhelpful.
A possible secondary and more serious message, though, deserves some attention. Throughout the play, each character expresses his or her point of view as an incontrovertible reality. They are all so certain of what they believe that each is unable to conceive of any contrary belief. Statements made by one person are not heard or absorbed but analyzed, reinterpreted and hurled back at them like a weapon. Yet, in these exchanges, they all some reason to question themselves and perhaps to change — and so do we, which is what theater is all about. And as theater, this lively, excellent production succeeds marvelously on several levels.
GOD OF CARNAGE will be presented at 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 4 p.m. Sunday through Nov. 10 in Sydney Laurence Theatre. Tickets are available at centertix.net.