When Henry hits Benjamin in the face with a stick at the local playground in Brooklyn’s upscale Cobble Hill neighborhood, breaking two of the eleven-year-old’s teeth and causing nerve damage, their parents decide to discuss the issue civilly. The couples meet for the first time at the tastefully decorated home of the injured boy’s family, but the façade of civility soon cracks and their attempt at reaching an agreement turns savage, exacerbated by the rare vintage rum they drink, exposing their true feelings towards each other, their marriages and parenthood, life and the world at large, in the off Broadway premiere of God of Carnage, Yasmina Reza’s dark “comedy of manners without the manners,” translated from the French by Christopher Hampton and presented by Theater Breaking Through Barriers (TBTB) for a limited engagement at Theatre Row (the first NYC production of the show since its 2009 Tony-winning Broadway run).
The only professional Off-Broadway theater company dedicated to advancing artists and developing audiences of people with disabilities, TBTB, founded in 1979, expanded in 2008, and now in its 43rd season, has incorporated into the production the characters’ introductory audio descriptions of themselves before they take the stage, and readily legible supertitle captioning that runs across the panels of the back wall (projection design and lighting by Samuel J. Biondolillo; set by Bert Scott), to make every performance fully accessible to all. Directed by TBTB’s Artistic Director Nicholas Viselli, the inclusive production of the sardonic four-hander also masterfully delivers all the outrageous laughs, along with a serious and revealing message about the underlying dysfunction and prejudice of ostensibly polite society, in an increasingly fast-paced 90 minutes that soon devolves from a veneer of feigned courtesy to full-out verbal animosity and physical altercations, and proves the old adage that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, as the parents behave as viciously as their kids.
Starring Carey Cox and David Burtka as Henry’s mother and father Alan and Annette Raleigh, and Gabe Fazio and Christiane Noll as the hosting Michael and Veronica Novak, whose son Benjamin was attacked, the across-the-board terrific cast brings their skilled comedic chops, perfect timing, and spot-on characterizations to the at-odds couples with total commitment to their declining manners and pretension, burgeoning hostility and aggression, exploding f-bombs and shifting allegiances that erupt into absolute chaos, completely upending the already awkward meeting.
Burtka’s Alan, a high-powered supercilious workaholic corporate attorney representing a pharmaceutical company in a high-profile lawsuit over an unsafe drug, constantly interrupts the ongoing and deteriorating discussion by taking a series of non-stop incoming calls on his cell phone, clearly more concerned with winning the case than resolving the issue with his son, and impatiently noting that he didn’t want to be there in the first place and “courtesy is a waste of time.” Cox’s solicitous Annette, who claims to be an expert in “wealth management” (that is, at handling her husband’s considerable income), quietly suffers his lack of interest and desperately tries to appease the Novaks until she doesn’t, spurred to an embarrassing bout of anxiety-induced projectile vomiting and taking the problem of her smug and distracted husband’s incessant phone calls into her own hands after downing more rum than she can handle.
In the role of Veronica, an aficionado of art history and African culture, and a writer currently working on a book about the tragedy of Darfur, Noll captures the woman’s lofty intellectual ideals, condescending attitude, and passive-aggressive behavior, as she reads her prepared statement about the playground incident, serves home-made clafouti (which she conspicuously pronounces with a French accent), and becomes increasingly upset with her guests and her husband (whom she attacks with a pillow). And Fazio’s Michael, a self-made wholesaler of home appliances, who heartlessly released his daughter’s pet hamster Nibbles out on the street for making noise, occasionally tries to keep the peace, but goes face-to-face with Alan, then supports his male perspective with the biting observations that “might makes right” and “I’m a fucking Neanderthal!” and his expressed belief in the titular “god of carnage.”
Scott’s set of a sleek modernist living room with a well-stocked bar, and integral props by Caitlyn Murphy, define the characters and their over-the-top actions, as do Olivia V. Hern’s dress-to-impress costumes that initially indicate their social status and professional refinement, and ultimately Michael’s true self in a tee-shirt and the drunken state of the women, whose clothes become disheveled. As with the great performances, it all gives us a lot to laugh about and something to think about, in TBTB’s excellent revival of the entertaining and provocative God of Carnage.
Running Time: Approximately 90 minutes, without intermission.
God of Carnage plays through Saturday, May 20, 2023, at Theater Breaking Through Barriers, performing at Theatre Row, Theatre 5, 410 West 42nd Street, NYC. For tickets (priced at $72.50, including fees), go online. Vaccination and masks are recommended in the building.