Now playing at the Ottawa Little Theatre, Yasmina Reza’s God of Carnage is an edgy four-hander driven by black humour, a destructive impulse and some deep philosophical questions. A trip through the wringer never felt so good.
Truth be told, I was not all that convinced by the synopsis. God of Carnage’s set up is fairly everyday, mundane even: two couples meet to discuss how to respond after their sons get in a fight that leaves one of the boys missing not one but two of his teeth. What you can’t see coming is just how wild things will get when the meeting becomes a flashpoint for the couples and all efforts at civility fall away.
It’s a comedy of manners suffused with black humour. There are lines that are downright grim but if you get it, funny nonetheless. The characters taking turns pronouncing it one of the worst days of their lives is a running joke by the end of it.
In Carnage we meet the Novaks and the Raleights. The former are hard working and down-to- earth, he a household goods wholesaler and she an author finishing a book about Darfur. The latter are busy being perfect, he an arrogant corporate lawyer and she a prissy “wealth manager.” If not for their sons’ incident these four people would have never found themselves in the same room, especially not debating justice, ethics, and reconciliation over coffee and clafoutis.
At the start it feels easy to take sides and point out the bad guys. By the end, everyone is sullied. It’s a gradual descent into madness as the God of carnage takes over and a fun trip to take with these characters. Deeply held truths, resentments, wounds all come unravelling in the Novak’s Brooklyn walk up. Alliances crumble under the stress of it all and re-form in surprising ways. Flash bangs erupt as emotional bombs are tossed around the room.
Carnage largely abandons plot in favour of a more philosophical approach, exploring the sliding scales of ethics, the fragility of civilization and how easy it is for all the dirty laundry to come tumbling out. If you wanted to read into it you might even say it’s a microcosm of global conflict and high level corruption, where just a small number of people giving into their baser instincts can set everything loose. The story’s held together by recurring motifs, like Michael leaving a hamster out to die, ridiculous pet names and Alan answering his ever-ringing phone.
Even with a fairly short 90-minute run time sans intermission, the script demands a lot to keep the pace up, especially at the beginning where the couples struggle to make small talk as they figure each other out. Luckily, director Chantale Plante and cast are up for the challenge. They do cringe-worthy uncomfortable really well, playing up the long silences and conversation starters left hanging with bold facial expressions and body language.
The cast have an impressive chemistry which allows them to bring an assured freedom and looseness to their performances. It gives the show the unpredictable pop of improv and makes the script sing.
Cindy Beaton is hilarious as the melodramatic, self-righteous and exasperated Veronica, who clings most tightly to the civilized ideal. Allan Ross nails the timing and tone of his witty one-liners as Michael, the loveable everyman. Patrick McIntyre oozes arrogance as Alan, the lawyer married to his work and his phone. Opposite him Jane Chambers gets at Annette’s frustration and desperation as an unhappy Mom who holds her feelings under a tight lid of appearances. It would be easy to make cartoons of these characters as all their flaws are revealed so kudos to the cast and director for keeping them real.
Graham Price’s set is a cozy backdrop for the chaos that’s small enough to amplify the tension. Price makes good use of half walls to give us a privileged view into closed spaces and creative photo projections that give a sense of the world outside the apartment.
The Ottawa Little Theatre’s God of Carnage packs a smart script, black comedy and a cast that plays off each other with ease. If you’re the kind to laugh at human nature and get a tickle out of chaos God of Carnage has what you’re looking for, even if you thought it’d be a play about parents talking kids. It’s a rollercoaster ride through some serious muck but when you come out of it you somehow feel absolved.
Fair warning: as can be expected with the themes addressed there is some mature language and content. I didn’t find it excessive. View the trailer below: