For years conflict has been recognized as a major ingredient of drama. How else to explain why Edward Albee and David Mamet have become pillars of the American stage? But Yasmina Reza tops them all, and “God of Carnage” — which has just opened as part of the Princeton Summer Theater’s impressive lineup — is a prime example.
The work has variously been described as “87 minutes of complete chaos” and “a train wreck of an afternoon.” In truth, it is a drawing-room comedy with new and exciting heights of humor, barbed-wire dialogue, and, yes, some venom. Well, a lot of venom.
It has been translated from playwright Reza’s natural language — French — by British playwright Christopher Hampton, and the pair brilliantly skewer the Brooklynite upper-middle class.
The plot revolves around two 11-year-old boys (not in the play) who have had a disagreement at school. One of them has taken a stick and knocked out the other boy’s two front teeth. The parents are meeting to discuss the situation — presumably in a civil manner. It turns out to be a difficult project.
Alan and Annette, parents of the more aggressive lad (played stunningly by Billy Cohen and Maddie Meyers) are apparently trying to express just the right degree of contrition. It really isn’t easy — he is a high-powered lawyer and has a constantly ringing cell phone to prove it. She describes her work as “wealth management.” She leaves the impression — that should be enough.
For her part, the victim’s mom, Veronica, is played with wonderfully shaded nuances by Olivia Nice, who graduated two years ago from Princeton and is currently acting in New York. Not all of her passion is real, however, for example she “doesn’t see the point of existence without some kind of moral conception of the world.” But let things start to go a little against her wishes, and just watch the snarls of a wild beast come into her conversation.
Her husband, Michael, is played by Jake McCready (a native Texan, now studying for an MFA in New York at the New School for Drama) with his tongue firmly planted in humorous one-liners.
Playwright Reza clearly seeks to shock and occasionally to offend. For example, a stage direction asks Annette to deliver “a brutal and catastrophic spray of vomit.” She does and the scene is not only embarrassing, but one of the funniest you are apt to see in years.
Now you can’t just turn this kind of material over to any director or any set of actors and expect results. Annika Bennett has been working both at the Goodman Theater in Chicago and Seattle Rep since she graduated from the university two years ago. She has paced the show at break-neck speed (a must) and has moved her characters with great skill. Note how she pairs the men together at times; the ladies at other times, and how it fits the dialogue. And watch as the four actors subtly develop small character traits that give distinct hints as to why each acts the way they do.
A very funny play about the very worst in people. Don’t miss it.
God of Carnage, Princeton Summer Theater, Murray-Dodge Hall, Princeton University through Sunday, July 10, with performances Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., and Saturday and Sundays at 2 p.m. $24.50 to $29.50. 609-258-7062 or www.princetonsummertheater.org.