There is plenty of the obligatory carnage afoot in the George Street Playhouse production of Yasmina Reza’s international hit “God of Carnage.” Notwithstanding David Saint’s meticulous direction, this minor comedy that nevertheless was the triple-crown award winner of the Tony, Drama Desk, The Outer Critics Circle in 2009, stirs ferocity into a farce with purposefully unsettling results. That I remain, after seeing the play for the third time (twice on Broadway) not nearly as amused by the contrived situation or by the incredulous behavior of the characters as many in the audience leaves me something to ponder. I also expect that now that “God of Carnage” is making the rounds of regional theaters that it will exceed the popularity of Reza’s previous hit comedy “Art.”
Presumably well served by Christopher Hampton’s translation, Reza’s comedy bristles for much of its 75 minutes with comically caustic dialogue. Much of the fun results from the team work of four excellent actors — Betsy Aidem, James Ludwig, Christopher Curry, Ann Harada — each of whom exhibits an impressive range of behavioral surprises.
The play, which takes place in the living room of an up-scale home in the Cobble Hill section of Brooklyn, concerns a face-off of two sets of parents, each committed to standing up in support of and in defense of their son’s physical confrontation in a school yard. A hot-shot lawyer Alan (Ludwig) and his cool and collected wife, Annette (Harada), are paying a presumably civilized call on a successful blue-collar entrepreneur Michael (Curry) and his wife, Veronica (Aidem), who collects and writes about art. During the ensuing visit, they each proceed to review the circumstances that led one boy to assault the other.
It doesn’t take long, however, for tempers to flair and for each of them to lose their composure amid an increasingly ugly battle of words, sometimes hurled at their respective spouse. The tensions and accusations that are released are more often than not peeks into specific aspects of their marriages and at their own personal and often petty grievances with their mates.
Each member of the cast has been afforded a marvelous opportunity to make a case that either puts them more directly in harm’s way or reduces them to being less civilized than their original airs made them seem. Ludwig, who last appeared at George Street in “Ctrl+Alt+Delete” in 2003 and more recently played Lancelot in the original Broadway company of “Monty Python’s Spamalot,” is terrific as Alan who attempts to stay in control of a business crisis on his cell phone while also addressing the legal angles of a potential lawsuit at hand.
Harada, who originated the role of Christmas Eve in “Avenue Q,” is always a joy to watch. She is especially so as Annette, who presents herself as a composed executive who, with hilarious results, loses her self control with the help of a bottle of rum and feelings of nausea. Theater veteran Curry is terrific as the initially conciliatory Michael, who when push comes to shove delivers his own explosive rebuke to the situation. Aidem, who last appeared at George Street in Arthur Laurents’ “Jolson Sings Again,” is seriously funny as Veronica, who, as the instigator of a full-out range of pent-up hostility among the others, decimates and contradicts her own liberal views on proper social behavior.
That these four pretentiously civilized people mange to wreak emotional and physical havoc within designer James Youmans’s black, white, and red living room setting without damaging the impressive pseudo Louise Nevelson wall sculpture, is commendable and a hopeful sign that some boundaries to civilized behavior do exist.
“A week ago I lost my best friend,” began Saint in his opening night greeting to the audience. He was speaking about the passing of legendary theater playwright Arthur Laurents, who had been George Street’s playwright-in-resident in recent years where many of his last plays premiered. Saint, who was in the midst of rehearsing “God of Carnage,” talked about visiting Laurents while he was gravely ill. “I want to be there on opening night,” Saint recalls Laurents saying. Before the George Street audience, Saint raised his outstretched arms and (making an apology for taking a small liberty with a lyric from “Gypsy”) and with misty eyes spoke out with intensifying feeling, “Arthur, this one’s for you, for you, for you.”
“God of Carnage,” through Sunday, June 5, George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. $29 to $67.50. 732-246-7717.