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Compass Rose Theater’s God of Carnage

Boys will be boys, but their parents can be hell

"My whole life is in there!" That’s the quote of the night as Alan becomes tragically detached from a part of his body — his cell phone — in Yasmina Reza’s Tony Award-winning God of Carnage, playing through March at Compass Rose Theater. In his playbill notes, director Steven Carpenter quotes playwright Reza as saying of her plays: “They are funny tragedy, but they are tragedy.” Indeed.

            Tragedy and comedy barrel along hand in hand in this brief but intense story of two sets of parents who come together to discuss how to handle their two 11-year-old sons, one of whom has knocked the other’s teeth out with a stick.

            We start with four clearly delineated characters. Alan (Nigel Reed) is an uptight attorney for a pharmaceutical company whose product is beginning to get some very bad press and whose cell phone is permanently glued to his ear. His wife Annette (Miranda Zola) has a career in “wealth management” that, we suspect, consists of not much more than handling her husband’s money. Michael (James Gallagher) runs a successful wholesale company; his mother is taking the drug produced by Alan’s company. Veronica (Jeanne Dillon-Williams), Michael’s wife, seems obsessed with Africa and is working on a book on Darfur.

            Polite patter devolves into pugilistic polemics as the four take sides, at first couple versus couple, then men versus women, until it’s a final-four melee of individuals attacking one another. The attacks don’t stop at verbal jousting; the physicality of this show is, at times, shocking, with quite realistic effects. The verbal slings and arrows of upper middle class self-regard drive the drama. As the meeting moves from mild unease to accusations and then to rage, the characters’ masks aren’t so much removed as ripped to shreds. This accomplished cast is as compelling as you are likely to see on any stage. 

            It all falls apart when Annette gets so fed up with Alan’s rudeness that she dumps his cell phone into a vase of flowers. Nigel Reed’s extended primal response is one of the laugh-out-loud moments of the evening, set up brilliantly by Zola’s gradual emergence from her cocoon of propriety. Likewise, Gallagher and Dillon-Williams do an extended dance around the troubles of their marriage, which finally burst into light when he blurts out that marriage is “the most terrible ordeal God can inflict on you …”

            The final line of the play — “What do we know?” — carries so much more meaning than its words. It is followed by the play’s final shot, four faces emptied of artifice but filled with self-inflicted ignominy, literally sweating from the emotional and physical workout that led them to this freeze-frame moment. Blackout.

            In the dark we are left with the ghost-like images of those ravaged faces, the power of the moment reminding us that we have just witnessed the visceral art of acting.

Costume design: Christina McAlpine. Props: Joann and Mike Gidos. Lighting design: Marianne Meadow. Sound design: Steven Carpenter.

 

Thru March 26: FSa 8pm, SaSu 2pm, Th 7pm, 75 minutes with no intermission, Compass Rose Theater, 49 Spa Rd., Annapolis, $38 w/discounts, rsvp: ­www.compassrosetheater.org