Exploring social contracts in RHCR’s ‘God of Carnage’

God of Carnage

RHCR Theatre — through Sept. 28, tickets $16-19

RHCR is now presenting Yasmina Reza’s ‘God of Carnage.’ — Canopy Creative Studios

Social contracts are strange things.

Taboos and our oft-unspoken understanding of, and adherence to, them are fascinating. In general, one learns the key points from their parents: not to undress in public, for example. Over time, we start to intuit other social rules that are less clear cut, like not to tell other people how to parent their kids. But life’s best drama comes in the silent, tense moments just before, or after, someone breaks those rules.

Christopher Hampton’s translation of Yasmina Reza’s God of Carnage places us squarely inside of those moments. The play is set in the family home of an 11-year-old boy whose parents are meeting with the parents of another child who’s knocked out two of his teeth during a playground altercation. It delves into ethics, violence and apathy in a “slice of life” format that takes place in one room.

This type of play presents some unique challenges. Actors are the only thing that change on the stage, so their movement is solely responsible for creating tableaus that illustrate the dynamics at work. This specific play also presents an inherent challenge of stakes. The script does not provide the actors with super obvious, pressing needs — imminent death, clear goals, deadlines. Instead, the characters’ objectives alternate between achieving the moral high ground and getting their kids together to talk, which they themselves admit is probably a fruitless exercise. This lack of clear objectives turns the play into a meditation on character and morality.

And make no mistake, the characters in RHCR’s God of Carnage are the show.

At first blush, Veronica (Kristen Hamilton) appears to be the one on top in her relationship. She gently corrects her husband often, and he seems to defer to her. But as her deep-seated need to be seen as a paragon of moral virtue is challenged, the uglier aspects of her personality bleed through the cracks in her façade. This is when her husband, Michael (Gregory Stoll) sinks to her level, betraying a dynamic that is far more honest and natural, if neither sweet nor romantic.

Michael isn’t what he seems to be at first either. Amiable to an almost insane degree at the top of the show, Stoll expelled a forced, fake chuckle that made me physically uncomfortable with almost every line. This seems to be a sign of Michael’s self-suppression, because the moment his true personality surfaces, that chuckle hardens to a rare, bitter bark of derision. This is definitely appropriate as his true self is not nice. His true self disdains niceness and niceties in equal measures.

Veronica and Michael’s connection seems most genuine when they are mocking Alan and Annette after they’ve left the room. It’s almost as though, when trying to be “good citizens of the world” they are weak and lost, but upon embracing their worst selves, they get their power back. The entire dynamic underscores Michael’s sentiment that being nice is exhausting and disingenuous. He prefers to embrace the fact that he is a “Neanderthal.”

The other father, Alan (Terry Tesar), agrees. Tesar’s realization of the lawyer is delicately nuanced and delightful. I have read, and seen, this show before and I usually hate this man. He’s clearly happy to defend guilty pharmaceutical companies who prey on the weak, and there’s a fair bit of cruelty in him; he’s a man who calls his son a thug and pays more heed to his cell phone than his wife. But Tesar’s Alan is pretty damned likeable. Maybe it’s that he makes no bones about being a bastard, when everyone else on stage is hiding desperately behind the masks they’ve made for themselves. He is a bastard; he’s also tender, reasonable, thoughtful and forgiving.

His wife, Annette (Tamsin McAtee) seems almost timid next to him at first, but a writhing sea of passions lies beneath that initial impression. McAtee’s Annette knows how to play. She carefully manipulates others to regain control; employing dramatic fits of emotionality, feigning illness and maintaining an icy control as needed. McAtee’s delicious mastery of physical comedy infuses the character with a wicked glee that really sings.

All of the actors in this show made strong, interesting character choices. However, there were moments where those choices could have been channeled more effectively toward underscoring objectives. As a result, some big shifts in the play felt unmotivated or even contrary to the story. I think this was due to a lack of focus on the socioeconomic and political divide between the two couples.

We really didn’t get to see much in the way of class tension in this staging. It felt more like they were in the same tax bracket and their biggest divide was in how they managed their roles as parents. When Veronica overreacted to Annette destroying her photography book, it was played as though she was being selfish, when I’d imagine it was likely because the book that was ruined was expensive. Of course, the social expectation would be to let your guest off the hook, but I think the subtext is there. Similarly, Michael’s exchange with Alan about his job felt like Michael trying to seem smart. My reading however, is that rage at what he was hearing during Alan’s phone calls was confirming his political misanthropy, and he was not-so-subtly insulting him.

Because these things are socially unacceptable to talk directly about in polite society, they are not explicitly stated in the script — but they’re there. They are the elephant in the room that creates tension and elevates this story to the realm of social critique.

Without that elevation, we are left with the portraits of two different marriages, set in juxtaposition to each other. That contrast calls out the issues, and exposes the strengths of each family, then turns those impressions on their head. This framing made this into a “things aren’t always what they seem” play instead of a “these are the challenges facing our world” play.

That being said, God of Carnage at RHCR was a fun ride. The awkwardness is palpable, Annette’s probably psychosomatic illness was hilarious, and the guilty pleasure of watching other people destroy each other makes this the kind of show you go to with a group of friends on a night out. Probably not one for the kiddos though.

RHCR donates a portion of their proceeds from every show to local charities. Donations from God of Carnage go to Families Helping Families of Iowa.

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