Importing recent contemporary theater from Broadway, The Center for Performing Arts in Rhinebeck is putting on a production of Yasmina Reza’s Le Dieu de Carnage, a play that dramatizes the trauma of being adults who raise children amid a world of self-delusion and inflated egos. In a dispute about a child’s injury at the hands of another child, the commiserating parents descend into a maelstrom of childish behavior. This satiric minor masterpiece was an unexpected Broadway hit in 2008-10 (it was the third longest play running on Broadway this century). Kudos to the Center for bringing this lively play about “ordinary” life with such panache to our locale.
The sleight-of-hand deft magic of this play is to transform the mundane into surreal hilarity. Two pairs of parents meet to discuss their children’s behavior and the chasms open up: the frustrations and humiliations of their own marriages, the Thurberesque war of the sexes, the platitudes of pop psychology, the cynicism of home-brew philosophy, the veneer of civilized behavior disguised by occupation or clothes. The play moves from bland banality and politesse into savage, droll, trenchant irony—more Strindberg than Ibsen.
Regional theater usually features decent direction and sometimes very good direction, but it remains rare that one might discover superb direction. Lou Trapani has brought out subtle details of mime, diction, and inflection as the play’s pacing proceeds impeccably. The actors have responded with conscientious finesse.
Emily DePew as the complacent and self-righteous bourgeois housewife who descends slowly into crude anger plumbs this perilous descent with subtle declination. Frank McGinnis as the flim-flam corporate lawyer projects a fatuous cynicism that is eerily corrupt. Thomas L. Webb as the successful working-class businessman sports a cool sexism that thinly disguises his comic affability and submerged resentment. Melissa Mathews as the spoiled aristocrat whose identity resides in her self-deluding social status shares the shallowness of her personality with alienated, etiolated misanthropy. The body-language gestures of all the actors present offer a suave choreographed pageant. If you crave real acting on a stage, this is the production to see.
Lobsang Camacho’s costumes, set, and lighting is sheer delight. The play runs without intermission for 65 minutes without a missed stitch; it also delivers that elusive quality called catharsis wherein one sees everyday life in revived light.
The play was transferred to the screen in 2011 by Roman Polanksy under the sensible title Carnage. The English translation under which the play is headlines is God of Carnage, which offers a slightly different nuance from the French. The bolder nuance of the English certainly gets one’s attention, yet it should not shoulder the burden of theological implications. The Frenchified Normans (Viking aristocrats who adopted French culture) brought both the definite and indefinite article with them to England when they arrived with a definite number of ships and trebuchets with an indefinite number of soldiers. This play is modern trebuchet that punctures holes in the pretense of civilization—all in the name of defending and rearing children.