God of Carnage starts out innocently enough. Two sets of well-coiffed parents sit in a luxurious apartment, courteritoulsy hammering out the details of an altercation between their children. Alan Raleigh (Bill Williamson) and Annette Raleigh’s (Jamie White Jachimiec) son Benjamin Raleigh attacked Michael Novak (Don Maloney) and Katie Wodele’s (Veronica Novak) son Henry, which resulted in missing teeth and a severely bruised face. While the play starts out civilly, as we learn more and more about the characters and their children, marriages, finances, and proclivities, it becomes clear that in the immortal words of Conan the Barbarian author Robert E. Howard: “Civilized men are more discourteous than savages because they know they can be impolite without having their skulls split, as a general thing.” As the play progresses, almost every sentence between all the characters is laced with cynicism and cyanide, culminating in childlike violence. Its childish nature doesn’t make it less devastating. Just as small children have to be told to stop pulling cats’ tails, the ability to realize and stop the pain we cause others is a learned skill, and one that many adults still haven’t mastered.
A spectrum of carnage:
As pairs, Jachimiec/Williamson and Wodele/Maloney have excellent chemistry together. The Raleigh’s relationship reads as tenuous from the beginning of the play, but the Novak’s marriage seems to be the most surreptitiously vicious and more readily erupts into violence. While Alan is a lawyer and Annette is in wealth management, Michael’s stores sell homegoods and Veronica is a public intellectual currently writing a book about Darfur. Each adult is a model of a particular kind of cruelty and carnage, covered with the veneer of civilization.
Allan is the most stridently horrible -- helping cover up the harsh side effects of a drug, he is fine deliberately hurting others in order to have power and make money. Williamson’s performance is lanky and bro-ish -- he manhandles his suit, always greedily reaching in to scoop up his precious phone, which he treats more tenderly than any other person on stage. He is loud and obnoxious (perfectly in character) and he makes due with some of Alan’s more ridiculous speeches. In particular, the titular God of Carnage speech feels a bit hollow, but that feels deliberate on the playwright’s part; Alan’s God of Carnage is not just an expression of a Hobbesian worldview (where human lives are “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”) but rather an excuse to allow uncivilized and brutal behavior towards fellow humans within the confines of society.
Annette tries to be embarrassed about her husband, but you can’t help but realize through the whole play that she picked and continues to be married to someone so awful. After all, her nickname is “Woof-Woof” -- as in, “how much is that doggy in the window--Woof-woof.” We certainly seem to know her price.
Jachimiec’s characterization is buttoned-down, reserved, a bit cowed, but as she starts to lose composure (and particularly when she starts drinking) the barbs come out. She is witty, cutting, and willing to sacrifice much if it means getting ahead. Not to spoil too much, but there is a real physicality to the part, and her performance beautifully charts the change in Annette. Hands down the best line in the play belongs to Annette, and Jachimiec’s delivery is flawless:
“ [...]it's pretty amusing, someone descended from Spartacus and John Wayne who can't even pick up a mouse.” (God of Carnage, pg 38).
Directed towards Michael, the effect is explosive. Maloney does a good job with Michael, whose excessively good wife is clearly something that makes his life both better and worse. Maloney imparts a physicality to Michael, giving him a kind of hulking menace that is just barely contained. Michael never wanted this little get-together; he is much more in line with Alan’s God of Carnage than Veronica would like to admit. Unlike Alan, who is allowed to express his darker impulses, Michael feels repressed. Early on in the play, Maloney channels that repression into frantic cleaning, and later into loud bouts of yelling.
lf the most civilized. There is certainly room in the script to play Veronica more bookish and intellectual, but Wodele’s choice to embrace a more earthy, new-age vibe is welcome (particularly because the other characters are so clean and predictably professional). Her philosophies -- the development of human capacities, cultivating a love of art and culture within herself, her husband, and her children -- result in the delightfully World-Market-esque nickname Darjeeling. “Woof” indeed. My only complaint with this character choice is that the set, her home, doesn’t seem to reflect her more Metropolitan tastes -- it reads a bit dated and cheap. I would have loved to see something a bit less Beetlejuice and a bit more Scandinavian or even Exocit (with a capital “E”) to really showcase Veronica’s facade via her home.
Of course, like the other characters, her pretense is only that, and by the end of the piece she is the most violent of them all.
Perhaps the most dated thing about the script is that only Alan is distracted by his mobile phone. The near constant interruption of the phone drives the plot forward, heightening Annette’s stress and ultimately causing her to explode. When she finally disposes of Alan’s phone in a fit of childish rage, the stage instantly becomes less frantic. This momentary calm does not last long, however--soon enough the home phone starts ringing, and the cycle starts again.
God of Carnage delivers some stellar performances of an interesting script! Even if you caught the Guthrie’s production in 2011, the word-play alone should bring you back in to see Lyric Art’s production, which runs until October 28th.