Two days before the opening of The Theatre Lab’s production of Yasmina Reza’s God of Carnage at Capital Hill Arts Workshop, Theatre Lab announced the launch of a new professional theater company called Breakout Theatre.
According to its press release: “The new theater company will comprise all graduates from Theatre Lab’s Honors Acting Conservatory, who form the only group eligible to audition for Breakout Theatre productions. All technical roles, including stage management and crew, will be filled by participants in the Arts Institute for Creative Advancement, a groundbreaking program that trains underrecognized youth and young adults in D.C. to work as theater technicians.”
The company launched with a four-performance run of God of Carnage featuring only Theatre Lab graduates.
So why is God of Carnage a good choice for Breakout Theatre’s first showcase for actors’ abilities? Well, it’s a fairly accessible play: award-winning, and well-known to theater enthusiasts. Carnage allows each actor in its cast of two married heterosexual couples to perform an emotional range that spans from silent spite to frothing rage. In this sense, Carnage is a 2008 reflection of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
But is God of Carnage good? If you judge from the comments in the audience, as the lights came up at the end: “It’s a brilliant script!” “The lines were so good!”
The play begins with a meeting between two couples, discussing what to do about an incident with their children. Alan and Annette’s child has assaulted Veronica and Michael’s child with a stick, causing him to lose two teeth. The four meet in a remarkably amicable gathering (at first) discussing how to recount, in writing, how the fight played out. The play devolves into personal insults and arguments that highlight the toxicity between each couple and culminates (spoiler) in a dramatic trashing of Veronica and Michael’s house.
But the social commentary in this play feels outdated. To lean on stereotypical class-based archetypes removes any complexity for each character: Alan is a high-powered lawyer defending big pharma, Annette is an anxiety-ridden wealth-management advisor, Veronica is the performative liberal writer focusing on the Darfur genocide, and Michael is the blue-collar working man (how are Veronica and Michael married again?). That lack of complexity makes it hard to see ourselves in any of these caricatures, and so the play gives us nothing to even begin emotionally connecting to before revealing that all the characters are just toxic individuals succumbing to their worst impulses.
When God of Carnage premiered in 2006, it was probably great for its time; but honestly, if your play gets made into a movie by Roman Polanski, as this one was in 2011, maybe it’s safe to retire the piece.
Of course, the quality of the production cannot be assessed by the quality of the play itself, and Breakout Theatre wants to showcase its actors, which is an incredibly noble enterprise. Building a program that both assists with training and provides job placement for future artists needs to be highly commended.
To that, the performers do fairly effective work with these caricatures during the dramatic moments of the production. Veronica (Mary Rodrigues) and Annette (Caroline Adams) have the clearest character transformation from beginning to end. The physical weight of the abuse these two characters endure is emotionally present on their shoulders and faces. Their success is in their physical evolution, from hospitable or stoic, respectively, to disheveled and raging. Rodrigues, lying on the floor while fielding a call from her daughter, does an excellent job evoking the combined shame and anger at the world and those around her.
Michael (Aron Spellane) and Alan (Chuck O’Toole) share a chemistry that I can only define as frat bro, united in the knowledge of the power dynamic. Spellane does an effective job gradually transforming an initially disarming, jovial smile into a grimace throughout the play. O’Toole plays a detached, emotionally neglectful personality extremely well, chuckling at the idea of naming a grenade launcher a “thump gun.”
Randy Baker is an award-winning director in the DC area. His individual coaching with the actors is clear in all of their more elevated deliveries, but some of the subtler moments felt rushed, or simply unaddressed. The scene that comes to mind is when Alan leans his face in on Veronica (almost as if to kiss or seduce her), only to be dismissed. The weight of that moment doesn’t seem to land on any of the characters from that point on.
What Breakout Theatre is doing is a wonderful continuation of the work that Theatre Lab trains on. Carnage as a play may simply be uninteresting (to myself), but it does give stage actors the fluidity to practice their dramatic range and develop a cohesive chemistry onstage. I look forward to seeing The Theatre Lab give its actors extensive opportunities and a place to practice ambitious choices in Breakout Theatre’s next professional production.
Running Time: 90 minutes, no intermission.
God of Carnage plays through June 24, 2023, presented by The Theatre Lab performing at the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop, 545 7th Street SE, Washington, DC. Tickets (starting at $15) are available online.
COVID Safety: Masks are optional and are available at the check-in desk upon request.