Parenthood ought to be, and usually is, a great common denominator. People who otherwise have little in common discover that their kids go to school together, or play on the same soccer team, or sing in the same choir, and the next thing you know, those parents are best friends. Yet as anyone who has ever experienced the joys of carpooling or the excitement of organizing a play date or even, god help us, a sleepover, knows, the antagonism of small differences has a way of creeping into even the most well-intentioned parental alliances. In Yasmina Reza’s play God of Carnage, which will be at Center Stage Theater June 14-23, the pleasures and terrors of parent bonding are laid out on a dissecting table, with the polite small talk peeled away and the bloody marvels that lie under the surface displayed for all to see.
Speaking with director Peter Frisch about this project, I got the sense that while the play is naturalistic in tone and diction, there’s something unhinged about it, too. “It’s a special, unique deal,” he told me, when asked to locate God of Carnage in relation to the dramatic tradition. “It’s not like anything else. It’s just a smart play that’s beautifully written, line by line, all the way through. If there’s any reference point, perhaps it would be the work of Samuel Beckett, but Reza is not so existential. She deals with the fact that we are all really animals. The scenes toward the end are heavy, but their seriousness is couched in comedy.”
The setup appears straightforward. An argument at the playground between two young boys ends with one of them knocking a couple of the other’s teeth out. The parents of the boy who threw the punch are Alan and Annette, a high-powered lawyer and his stylish wife, and they are the ones who show up at the apartment of the other boy, looking to smooth things over. They are greeted by Michael and Veronica, a self-made wholesaler and his wife. The intensity of the ensuing conversation, which begins politely enough, escalates steadily until things are said in anger that can’t be ignored or forgotten. It’s the kind of dramatic material that appeals to Frisch, who teaches acting studios here, in Los Angeles, and in Santa Maria. “What happens is hysterically funny” he said, adding that “in the space of 30 minutes, the piece moves from the territory of a standard living-room comedy into the arena of broad farce. It’s almost like there are two different plays, and the second one escapes from within the first.” The actors — Robin Burrows, Bill Egan, Jennifer Vogel, and Thom Zimerle — are all onstage for virtually the entire hour and 40 minutes of the production.
God of Carnage began as a French work, Le Dieu du carnage, and has now been translated twice by Christopher Hampton, once for the British stage and then again to make it more American. The Broadway production of 2009 featured Jeff Daniels, James Gandolfini, Marcia Gay Harden, and Hope Davis. Every member of the quartet was nominated for a Tony, and Marcia Gay Harden won for Best Actress in a Play. The production also received Tony awards for Best Director of a Play and for Best Play before Roman Polanski adapted it for the big screen for his 2011 film, Carnage. The intimacy of Center Stage ought to make a good match for this intriguing entry in the early summer theater season.
God of Carnage shows at Center Stage Theater (751 Paseo Nuevo) from Friday, June 14-Sunday, June 23, with performances at 8 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, and 3 p.m. on Sundays. Call (805) 963-0408 or visit centerstagetheater.org for tickets and info.