God of Carnage, by Yasmina Reza. Directed by Phil Rice. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
"The art of coexistence. . .which our son doesn't have."
Kathleen Cary and Erin Waterhouse; photo: Abe Phelps
Picture four cats on a stone wall - two male and two female. Now see them wooing one another: a pretty picture until one of them gets a hair out of line. Then picture them taking each other down one level of stones at a time. Hit the ground running, they say, but in the case of the four cats in Yasmina Reza's play "God of Carnage" you have more than just animal instincts in play. There is also education, business acumen, social status and wealth accumulation to take into account. The two couples who inhabit this sixty-nine minute trip down the road of human existence should not be in the same city, let alone the same room, on the same stone wall, or even in their own marriages.
Closing the season at the Theater Barn in New Lebanon, eight artists have built an extraordinary experience out of this play in its English language translation by Christopher Hampton. Angst, it turns out, can be humorous, even downright funny. Under the skilled direction of Phil Rice, all of the elements seem to have merged into a wild ride that makes you think you've been in the theater for much longer because so much happens in this short time. If there is a possible change in attitudes, or a shift in relationships, or a lurch into another reality, it is due to the finesse that the director and actors have brought to bear on the arguments Reza created for this 2008-2009 London and Broadway hit play.
The cast appear to be ideal. Kathleen Carey, long a favorite among regional actresses, brings to life Veronica, an aggrieved mother, wife of a John Wayne admirer, who is over-educated to the point where she can literally paraphrase many histories and philosophies as needed while being supportive and over-protective of her injured son. Carey also has a wonderful way of changing vocal tone, like stopping on a dime, as she says things she must mean but doesn't mean to say. During the play she becomes less connected and more real as she discovers how her own hidden hypocrisies have colored her responses. Watching this happen in her face, body and hair while hearing those alterations in vocalizing her thoughts keeps this play real, alive and shattering.
We don't think of a comedy as being a shattering experience, but newcomer to the Theater Barn, Brett Milanowski takes that route from the beginning. As Alan, father of the boy who assaulted the other kid, he is initially less involved in this meeting than anyone else. In truth he has an investment in it that he keeps hidden until it can no longer be denied. His business pre-occupies him to the aggravation of the other three adults in the room. His dependence upon his own importance is manifest in the way Milanowski stands or sits at any point. His disillusionment in his wife and in the people he deals with are identical and the actor gives the character a solid sense of phony refinement that ultimately blows up in his face. This actor is not from the region, but will hopefully be back at this theater in something completely different. He is that good.
Erin Waterhouse plays his wife Annette. The absolute sincerity she brings to each and every line she speaks is ultimately hysterically funny. This actress has the unique chore of vomiting several times and she pulls it off brilliantly (which may sound weird, but it's just right when you see it). Her emotional performance is in keeping with the character and the funniest things happen through her work. Once or twice she almost moves us to tears, but the situations in which she becomes so pent up are too funny to allow that. Here is an actress who could take on the great classics and also the most contemporary roles with equal success.
Aaron Holbritter brings a wide range of believable personalities into the role of Michael, husband of Kathleen Carey's Veronica. At one moment he is a concerned father, then he is a wholesale-salesman of unlikely bathroom fixtures, then a street-gang tough, then a connoisseur of fine spirits. His constant mutations are part of a larger man who combines both fine instincts and base ones as well. As the opposite side of manhood from Alan, he is a perfect foil for barbs and jokes and at the same time a formidable opponent on all levels. Holbritter manipulates both Michael's innate characteristics and his physical strengths (he is overwhelmingly physical) with ease and poise and a form of tension that is wonderfully amusing.
All four are amusing all the time, even when the talk is serious. What makes this production work so well is that Rice and his cast allow the humor to emerge from the serious topics under discussion. There is no pushing of comedy behavior or tones of voice. There is the reality of the writing brought to light light by talented actors who have roles that are not parodies of people but are people as they genuinely are in this world.
Abe Phelps very attractive set is just right for this show, the blood-red walls and open window imagery perfectly matching the sentiments of the play. Allen Phelps lighting is perfectly ordinary, just as the play requires, and his long gradual sunset for the day of the play, is so subtle that by the time you realize it is happening it has almost ended. Shimra Jamie Fine has discovered each character in her perfeclty designed costumes.
This play is much better than I assumed it to be from an earlier experience of it. The Barn usually ends their season with a contemporary comedy and this time around they went for a dark comedy which is so much funnier than it could be that their triumph here is a complete triumph. As the final play of the summer season it is a great way to go off to their winter holidays. You could do the same thing by stopping by to witness what front-runner talents can achieve when you bring them all together.
Aaron Holbritter and Brett Milanowski; photo: Abe Phelps