God of Carnage – Monsters on Maple Street
A REVIEW BY THE BAD ORACLE
When I was in high school, I had a friend, we’ll call her Anna Mellon. Anna’s mother, Mrs. Mellon, thought she was better than everybody else. Anna and I were friends for ten years. EVERY SINGLE TIME her mother called our house, she would sniffily say into the phone “Hello, this is Samantha. Samantha MELLON.” And my mother would sigh and say, “I know who you are, Sam, our kids have been friends for a decade.” This kind of snobby, smug behavior infuses Yasmina Raza’s God of Carnage like elderberries in a particularly delicious bottle of vodka and it’s just as satisfying. The Novaks (Holly Gibbs and Micheal W. Tan) and the Raleighs (Margaret Condon and Dan Collins) are sitting down for coffee. See, the Raleigh’s son has, of late, smacked the Novak’s son upside the head with a stick in the playground, dislocating a couple of his choppers, and their parents are in for one of those “what my kid did to your kid” convos. The situation is already awkward but it’s made even more so by the fact that all of these people are absolutely insufferable. Veronica (NOT RONNIE) Novak is one of those people who exclusively shops in museum gift shops for her accessories and tells the dog-walker that he can take a beer from the fridge “whenever!” but secretly counts them in the middle of the night. Her husband, Micheal, sells toilet hardware and tries not to feel inadequate because of it. They use words like “co-parent” in a way that make you want to smack them and are high-strung helicopter nightmares. On the other side, we’ve got the Raleighs who are more Gentrification Classic. Annette Raleigh wears pearls to coffee and is so nervous, generally, that she bobs up and down like a drinking bird. Her hubs, Alan, can barely detach from his cell phone and is the kind of smarmy know-it-all asshole that your father probably was at times, too. There’s a guitar string of panic that runs through their conversation, panic about judgement, about being found lacking, about the uneasiness of establishing an appropriate social pecking order. That string is just aching to be plucked, and plucked it is as a simple, body-function-related hilarious event (Prop Design of Unmentionable Event by Fuzz Roark and Laura Nicholson) touches off an outpouring of epic proportions. When these fucks start talking, man, they don’t stop. Insults are hurled, allegiances shift and ids start frantically coming out to protect egos. This is one of those plays that is talk-talk-talky and nothing really happens, exactly, but you still feel absolutely exhausted by the end of it. I really don’t envy director Greg Bell this one. It’s a tough script. But there are pretty big pacing problems at the beginning of the play, most glaringly exemplified by a moment where the action appeared to unintentionally stop for a minute and a half. It literally seemed like the play had come to a standstill. They found the path again but damned, was it ever awkward. Bell does okay with the staging in the round but there were moments that I found myself wondering what what going on on the other side – when you’re in this tiny teensy round space, you just can’t sit people down for twenty minutes in the same spot. It doesn’t work. Luckily, though, there’s some gold to be found in these performances that makes up for early wonkyness. I adored Holly Gibbs in this spring’s Amadeus at Fells Point Corner and I adored her here. She strikes the exact right notes for Veronica Novak and she does it right from the first second. Watch the way her eyes track Alan as he examines her priceless African artifacts. Look at her posture. I envy Gibbs her surety, her absolute mastery of her part, her body, her voice. She’s so strong. Her other half, Micheal Tan, suffers a bit by comparison but that’s not exactly a bad thing and sort of works for his character. Tan is the brilliant music director at Spotlighters and it’s a little surprising to see him onstage. His bio says that this is the first acting he’s done in several years and that may explain some initial rustiness. But he finds his feet halfway through and holds his own in the tornado of an ending. I’d like to see him in something else, I found his style intriguing. I’ll be watching. Speaking of returning, it’s nice to see Dan Collins back again. I feel like I haven’t peeped him on the scene in awhile. It took me some time to warm up to his Alan, I found him a little one-note at first, but as Collins opened up and let us have it, I enjoyed his performance more and more. Margaret Condon, as Annette, turns twitching into an art form and skirt smoothing into an interpretive dance. She has the most gratifying breakdown of them all because Condon knows the truth in this character. She finds a way to make Annette the sort of emotional touchstone that prevents the entire thing from turning into a cartoon. Set by Alan Zemla was fucking fantastic this time. Drool-worthy detail of a type I haven’t seen at Spotlighters for a hot second. I had a total hard-on for the HANDPAINTED zebra wallpaper detailing and perfect laminate wood flooring (Stage Floor Design and Paint by Fuzz Roark). There are two moments of genius in the tech: Zemla’s inclusion of the son’s bedroom onstage even though we never see him in the play is one. The other is a leave-too-soon-and-you-miss it playing of the Hamster Dance as the exit music (Sound by Fuzz Roark song suggested by Margaret Condon & Dan Collins). TRUST ME.
BOTTOM LINE: God of Carnage, for a mostly-white, mostly-upwardly-social, mostly-comfortable, mostly-fucking-uptight theater-going crowd is a brutally crazy shitshow of a funhouse mirror that none of us wants to look in but all of us probably should. The show manages a pretty decent slow burn towards a whiz-bang series of climaxes that mostly forgive early unevenness and bumpy pace-related uneasiness. Stay with it. It pays off.
Running at Spotlighters until July 27th.
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