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Kate Hampton, Katie Cunningham, David Breitbarth and James Clarke.
Just how thin is the veneer of civilized behavior that overlies our baser instincts? Pretty thin, indeed, as it can be stripped off in just 70 minutes or so in Yasmina Reza’s one-act play God of Carnage, now playing at the Asolo Rep.
The destruction takes place in the living room of upper middle-class Brooklynites Michael and Veronica (David Breitbarth and Kate Hampton), who are meeting with another set of parents, Alan and Annette (James Clarke and Katie Cunningham) to discuss the playground behavior of their young sons. One of them has hit the other, and to Veronica, especially, it seems only right that an apology be made and matters appropriately resolved.
At first everything seems calm enough, with offers of coffee and clafouti and attempts to be empathetic about each other’s kids. But from the moment the curtain rises, there is an underlying tension, not just between the different couples but between the husbands and wives themselves. No matter how carefully anyone tries to walk in the minefield of parental protectiveness and responsibility, some explosion is bound to be set off. And we know things are only going to go from bad to worse when the moment comes for Michael to ask, ”Who wants a little rum?”
The performances of the four actors, who are onstage and talking virtually nonstop throughout, are finely calibrated under the direction of Greg Leaming. Each of these modern-day individuals is tightly wound, just in different ways. We may think we have the measure of a character early on; for example, Michael seems a peacemaker, Alan, a high-powered lawyer whose cell phone rings incessantly, more of a provocateur. Veronica comes across as overbearing, Annette more timid initially.
But as alliances shift with lightning speed and the warfare escalates, we see more to each character, each marriage, and if we’re honest, to our own responses to what’s happening, especially for those in the audience who have been parents. It’s both great fun and a little squirm-making to watch as, eventually, more than four-letter words are thrown back and forth and this perfectly detailed environment becomes a shambles.
As I said before, all the performances are sharp and entertaining; I give a slight edge to Hampton’s Veronica here, partly because she just gets so much good stuff to do in Reza’s script. Judy Gailen’s set is both a dead-on representation of an upscale living room and a metaphor, as she says in the program notes, for a boxing ring. The punches land with precision in this often very funny and equally uncomfortable production.
God of Carnage continues through April 6; for tickets call 351-8000 or go to asolorep.org.