God of Carnage

Theatre Raleigh/Hot Summer Nights
Through June 30

In their earlier attempts to leaven their seasonal diet of comedies, cabarets and musicals with a little red meat for the carnivores in the audience, Theater Raleigh/Hot Summer Nights frequently revisited ground already well covered in the region, with shows such as Proof and Oleanna. But in two regional premieres last year, we saw an appreciable upgrade in their annual iron supplement: a notable December production of Tracy Letts’ August: Osage County after a summer showing of David Mamet’s scathing Race.

That trend continues this season with one of this company’s most accomplished shows to date. In the area premiere of God of Carnage, director Richard Roland confidently navigates the choppy waters in Yazmina Reza’s Tony award-winning 2008 script, leading a quartet of well-seasoned regional actors through the extremities of its dark social satire.

In it, two upper-class couples, the Raleighs and the Novaks, have agreed to meet over espresso and clafoutis after their two kids, Henry and Benjamin, fought in a playground. Benjamin, the Novaks’ kid, lost two teeth in the scuffle.

Veronica Novak is a writer, working on a book about Darfur; husband Michael heads a wholesale firm. Alan Raleigh is an attorney for a pharmaceutical company, while wife Annette is in wealth management. Such civilized company can surely exchange views and resolve any differences without getting stuck, in Veronica’s words, “down some emotional cul-de-sac.”

Actually, don’t go betting on that. Whether it’s the caffeine, the high-proof liquor decanted shortly thereafter, or something far more shadowy in this volatile mix of testosterone, estrogen, ideals and rarely stated but non-negotiable bottom lines, civilization quickly and humorously devolves in this tony living room.

Where we expect the group to fracture along family lines, Reza surprises us. “Madam, our son is a savage,” Alan bluntly states, casting cold water on Veronica’s desire for an organic and educational détente between the two children.

Allegiances unexpectedly change several times as the values of each character in turn become the subject of debate. The women look askance at what the men consider normal childhood rites of passage. At a number of moments, exactly who and what is considered civilized tilts and turns as the rum flows and old grievances in both marriages are relitigated.

The discerning turn Dana Marks gives Veronica in the early innings dissolves into boozy remonstrance, while, as her husband, Greensboro-based Michael Tourek slowly unleashes his inner Neanderthal in the role the late James Gandolfini played on Broadway. The subtle superiority Derrick Ivey affects in his role as Alan morphs into something else as matters descend. Julie Fishell, who more than suggests a Catherine Deneuve character in LeGrande Smith’s costume and coiffure, shows us a woman whose cool sophistication slips and falls, revealing a less attractive truth.

By the end of this razor-sharp work, more than a room is trashed. So are a number of these characters’ most carefully guarded illusionsand maybe one or two of ours as well. This meeting of text, direction, performances and design earns our highest recommendation.

This article appeared in print with the headline “Beast in show.”