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By John Quinn
Civilized adults acting like spoiled brats may be fodder for that senseless entertainment genre and total oxymoron, “reality TV.” Whether its popularity is due to a “there but for the grace of God” self-righteousness or the morbid fascination of a traffic accident is not relevant. The point is that bad behavior can actually be entertaining when scripted by Yasmina Reza, as her sizzling comedy “God of Carnage” heats up The Jewish Ensemble Theatre these cold winter nights.
Consider two families, both with 11 year old sons, living in the Cobble Hill neighborhood of Brooklyn. In a playground squabble, Benjamin hit Henry with a stick, breaking a couple of his teeth. Our scene opens at Henry’s home, as his parents, Michael (Joseph Albright) and Veronica (Sarab Kamoo), prepare to host Ben’s parents. They would be Alan (Phil Powers), a busy and rather self-centered attorney, and Annette (Suzi Regan), into “wealth management,” presumably Alan’s. The couples tactfully dance around the issue at hand, exchanging small talk as polite strangers are wont to do, but conflicting opinions lead to utterly irrational arguments. In short, we learn that bad apples don’t fall far from the family tree. Far from being capable of disciplining their children, they can’t even discipline themselves.
What make Reza’s script a complex, satisfying work are the fluid loyalties evident. As the arguments grow more heated and off-topic, unlikely alliances spring up and are just as quickly severed. What might have been a couple-to-couple, “us against them” evening is also a “men versus women” and “I agree with your spouse” evening. Played in a single act, “God of Carnage” packs a lot of comedy into a small package.
On the other hand, 90 minutes spent with really awful people would be too much like an extended episode of “Real Housewives” were it not for an exceptionally talented cast. The quartet is in top form; Suzi Regan and Sarab Kamoo, two very classy ladies, show a real flair for broad, physical comedy. Director David J. Magidson builds the madcap pace as manners fall by the wayside, leaving us about as breathless as the characters are when they finally come to terms with their personal foibles.
Monika Essen’s soaring set is a tasteful nod to mid-century retro – clean, angular lines in black and white, punctuated with bright red upholstery. While the play is intimate enough to have been staged in the smaller Aaron DeRoy Theatre, also on the campus of the Jewish Community Center, Essen’s sense of scale and balance retains the spaciousness of The Berman stage without upstaging the actors. In addition, the acoustics of the Berman Theatre are excellent. If the attendance opening night is sustained, the choice of the larger house was the right one.
“God of Carnage” is a parable for our time. We have a primitive core papered over by social convention. As Michael puts it in the play, we’re “(expletive) Neanderthals.” For those of you who insist on letting the shaggy side show, TLC Network has a reality series with your name on it.
‘God of Carnage’
God of Carnage: The Jewish Ensemble Theatre Company at The Berman Center for the Performing Arts, 6600 W. Maple Road, West Bloomfield. Dec. 18-22; Dec. 28, 29, 31; Jan. 1. $36-$43. 248-788-2900. http://www.jettheatre.org
The production then moves to Performance Network Theatre, 120 E. Huron St., Ann Arbor, Thursday-Sunday, Jan. 12-Feb. 19, 2012. (Previews Jan. 12-15 & 19; $22-$32.) $25-$41. 734-663-0681 http://www.performancenetwork.org