I don’t know why God of Carnage doesn’t end with one grown-up clocking another across the face with a stick. Too on-the-nose, perhaps? Well, you tell me. This one-act farce gives us two sets of well-to-do parents, the Raleighs and the Novaks, conferring at the Novaks’ Brooklyn apartment to decide what’s to be done about the fact that the Raleigh boy hit the Novak boy with stick, costing the Novak boy two teeth. The adults come quickly to an agreement that the Raleigh boy shall apologize to the Novak boy. Medical expenses? “That’s what insurance is for,” shrugs Papa Bear Novak.
Here’s where most of us would shake hands and part ways; there’s nothing to be gained from lingering around the negotiating table after you’ve reached a deal. But French playwright and novelist Yasmina Reza—who specializes in comedies of manners like the equally lightweight Art, which won a Tony Award for best play more than a decade before this one did—sweats herself into a froth coming up with increasingly unpersuasive reasons to keep the Raleighs from leaving the Novaks’ apartment. How is she supposed to peel away their class-conscious politesse to expose (variously) their hypocrisy, racism, indifference toward their children, and general misery if they won’t lie still on the dissecting table?
It’s all too schematic for me. Reza’s writing looks like source code: There’s no discovery as these characters’ flaws manifest themselves; their author’s contempt for them is as evident as their loathing for one another, and we get all that in the first five minutes.
It’s a tribute to director Joe Calarco’s company of ringers—Andy Brownstein and Naomi Jacobson as the Novaks; Vanessa Lock and Paul Morella as the Raleighs—that the captivity passes more or less pleasantly. (It also helps that the whole thing is over within 75 minutes.) Paul Morella is particularly compelling as a big-pharma attorney who calls his own kid a savage and throws up his hands at any attempt at interventionist parenting. We know his priorities are wacky because, get this, he won’t stop answering his BlackBerry when he’s supposed to be dealing with a family crisis! Meanwhile, Naomi Jacobson’s Veronica Novak (who’s working on a book about genocide in Darfur, of course) doesn’t shift from sanctimony to hysteria until—spoiler!—Mrs. Raleigh projectile-vomits all over the out-of-print art catalogues on Mrs. Novak’s coffee table.
See what I mean about the stick? If one of the adults were to reprise the childish act of aggression that necessitated this meeting, at least this thing would have some dramatic symmetry to it, a virtue that has redeemed many an otherwise adrift episode of Mad Men, for example. As it is, you look forward to seeing these four actors in something better.