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Monday, November 11, 2019

The Upright Ape

THERE’S A FEELING OF LUSH LAWNS and expensive orthodonture. Inside the house hang abstract art, a motif that carries onto the floor. Books abound, piled on and around the sparse furnishings. Money and culture are reflected in the appearance of the two couples inhabiting the space; as we quickly learn, they are there to discuss the injury inflicted by the young son of one couple upon the young son of the other.

Sky Seals, Jennifer Cody, Josie DiVincenzo
Photo by Genevieve Fridley
Yasmina Reza’s play “God of Carnage” opened on Broadway in 2009, three years after its premiere in Switzerland and a year after the Christopher Hampton translation was first performed in London. It has gone on to become a regional theater favorite, something I found puzzling because of what struck me as the lackluster quality of the Broadway production I saw. Perhaps I was inured: I grew up with the kind of middle-class combat that energizes this script, and, at least in the few productions I’ve seen, I thought the actors’ hearts weren’t in it.

But I’ve been holding out hope, and that hope now has been more than satisfied. The production at Redhouse Arts Center in Syracuse is a fully committed, take-no-prisoners exploration of the tension imposed by middle-class expectations, and the horrible release that may await only a couple of rum-shots away.

The Raleighs (Alan and Annette) are visiting the Novaks (Veronica and Michael) in order to discuss that playground incident: the Novak’s son suffered two broken teeth. What begins as an attempt to draft a statement of what occurred deteriorates, over the course of a tense ninety minutes, into a brawl. Not a tangle of fisticuffs, of course – these people are much too middle-class for that – but you sometimes wish they could settle it as their children did.

“Our son is a savage,” Alan says at the outset. “To hope for any kind of spontaneous repentance would be fanciful.” And, when Veronica suggests that she speak to their son, Alan slyly reproves her, saying, “You're motivated by an educational impulse, which is very sympathetic,” and trailing off.

What makes the production work so magnificently is the ability of all four actors to unleash their inner demons, the animalistic urges we struggle to suppress. Veronica (Josie DiVincenzo) is a model of rectitude. When, at the top of the show, she quickly agrees to change a certain word in the statement she and her husband have written, you can see that she hates to concede. She’s a good-deeds-doer; she’s just written a book about the Darfur tragedy. Her marriage to Michael (Sky Seals) is straining some of its seams; his recent disposal of the family’s pet hamster was heartless and cruel.

Jeremy Kushnier, Jennifer Cody
Photo by Genevieve Fridley
But, significantly, it rouses only a cursory curiosity in the Raleighs. They, the guests, are keeping their emotions more firmly under wraps, even as Alan (Jeremy Kushnier) fields a succession of important cell-phone calls. Annette (Jennifer Cody) is the most accomplished passion-suppressor of the quartet. While Veronica’s is a frigid politeness, Annette seems sincerely outgoing. So repressed is she that her tension literally explodes in a fountain of vomitus. Cody plays the breakdown so deftly that even the malfunction of an important prop early on during the performance I saw was hardly missed. She conveyed her distress with pitiful physical accuracy, even as her outburst served to ruin one of Veronica’s precious art books and kick off the latter’s own slide into malevolence.

Michael acknowledges his annoyance with the civility they’re practicing when he says, “I can't keep this bullshit up any more. I am not a member of polite society. What I am and always have been, is a fucking Neanderthal.” The women, however, are more socially straitened. Oppressively viewed as “emotional creatures,” their emotional outbursts can be seen merely as par for the course. Reza’s script drives them well beyond any “girls will be girls” interpretation of their actions, and Cody and DiVincenzo credibly – and somewhat frighteningly – find contrasting pathways.

Cody plays Annette as a likeable soul whose inner anger bursts from behind her personal walls only after the alcohol the foursome consumes (a bottle of ten-year-old English Harbour Reserve rum) kicks in. She so used to deferring to Alan that it’s a surprise even to herself when she finally turns against him. “Why are you letting them call my son an executioner?” she cries. “You come to their house to settle things and you get insulted and bullied and lectured on how to be a good citizen of the planet.” And then, to Veronica, “Our son did well to clout yours and I wipe my ass with your bill of rights!” However outrageous the behavior, especially the physical behavior, that Cody portrays, it always reads as plausible – and horribly funny.

DiVencenzo’s Veronica, on the other hand, is a refined tiger mom, protective as hell but wishing, at first at least, to do the right thing. “I’m standing up for civilization!” she declares. “And it's lucky there are people who are prepared to do that!” She dive-bombs the stage with her lithe body, swooping into her husband to pummel him as he continues to provoke her (prompting Alan to declare that he’s beginning to like her), savaging Annette’s handbag as a final, futile manifestation of rage.

Sky Seals, Jennifer Cody, Josie DiVincenzo, Jeremy Kushnier
Photo by Genevieve Fridley
Alan is a lawyer in the midst of a pharmaceutical company imbroglio, hence the phone calls. He is an upright businessman. He is a connoisseur. Even when he’s a few shots into the rum, sprawling on an armchair, Kushnier gives him an unflappable dignity. His descent is the most striking, as he presents himself as the most dignified – and Kushnier displays a virtuoso sense of his character analyzing all possible actions before committing to one.

Which leaves Seals, as Michael, as the least-bridled from the start. He’s so easygoing and open about himself that he has no trouble, when in his own drunken fog, thrusting a hand down the front of his trousers – and, indeed, cuddling with Annette in a way that’s lustful without seeming anything but animalistic. And he’s the one who gives voice to what the others have to be thinking: “Children consume our lives and then destroy them. Children drag us towards disaster; it’s unavoidable.”

Director Hunter Foster places the piece on a thrust stage in an intimate 125-seat theater, a presentation that helps the merry-go-round aspect of the action. I suspect rehearsals were a challenging process of seeing just how far these characters could be pushed, and I’m delighted by the result. This is the best kind of acting, the kind that is drawn from professional actors in a setting that allows creativity to rule the process. Redhouse was a small company that achieved enough success over the years to require more spacious quarters, and so moved into the former Sibley’s Department Store in downtown Syracuse early in 2018. Foster, an acclaimed Broadway actor with a background as a playwright as well, came in as artistic director last December. A production as excellent as this one makes this a company worth watching. “God of Carnage” runs through November 17; there’s more information here.

God of Carnage

By Yasmina Reza, translated by Christopher Hampton
Directed by Hunter Foster
Redhouse Arts Center
400 South Salina Street, Syracuse, NY
9 November 2019

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