CONTENTIOUS COUPLES Wolfskehl, Chace, Hamrick, Jr., and Lum.
If we want a civilized society, we have to study and practice civilized behavior. In other words, we’ve got to stop acting like goddamn savages. Yasmina Reza’s God of Carnage was originally written in French, and some might say that the heirs of Napoleon and Charles de Gaulle are in particular need of instructions by Miss Manners. But the first production was in London in 2008, followed by a Tony Best Play run on Broadway, so obviously there is wider identification.
A beautifully performed Mixed Magic Theatre staging (through May 18), directed with careful attention by Rich Morra, will allow you to empathize with our stand-ins or shake your head in adamant denial.
We see two couples having a perfectly amiable discussion. Their 11-year-old boys have had a schoolyard altercation that left one of them needing dental care. Both sets of parents agree on what happened and what must be done. Their only disagreement, quickly settled, is fatuously semantic: whether the offending boy was “armed” or “furnished” with the stick that did the damage. Not much wiggle room for conflict, right? Wrong.
What follows is a case study of what can result when fallible people as well as good intentions are in charge. By the end of 80 minutes, a vase of lovely flowers are torn and strewn about the living room, one of the women has vomited almost as violently, and no one is protected by the social façades they stood behind at the outset.
We are in the Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, home of Michael and Veronica Novak (Tom Chace, Christina Wolfskehl). He is a successful wholesaler and she is a socially concerned writer who has a book on the Darfur conflict coming out. It was their son who had two teeth knocked by the other boy after calling him “a snitch.” They have invited over Alan and Annette Raleigh (Amos Hamrick, Jr., Hannah Lum). He is a lawyer who keeps interrupting their conversations by responding to his cell phone, and she is a wealth manager.
Tooth talk takes up a chunk of early polite conversation before things get real, especially after they all start downing Michael’s 10-year-old rum. Insurance will take care of the damage, so endodontics and money aren’t at issue. Their personalities and temperaments are. For example, Michael admits to taking his daughter’s hamster out of its annoyingly squeaking cage and abandoning it on the sidewalk outside as it trembled.
His insensitivity catalyzes a particularly powerful moment later on when he casually, humorously, denigrates his wife’s passion for her Darfur work — Wolfskehl blew me back with the intensity of Veronica pummeling her husband, clearly an outburst with deep history in their relationship. Veronica is the most hopeful of the bunch, asking early on: “Fortunately, there is still such a thing as the art of coexistence, isn’t there?” Yes, art rather than science, apparently, as finesse rather than rational discussion seems to work best here.