Thus far in its young, meteoric life, Yasmina Reza’s God of Carnage (2008) has been a production whereby audiences get to see a tremendous actor play someone who turns into a complete wackjob. In every staging — French, British, and American — the four-person comedy of wordplay and body fluids has featured a major national actor. In France it was Isabella Huppert; in London, it was Ralph Fiennes. The big kahuna on Broadway was James Gandolfini, post-Sopranos, who redrew his soulful goombah character in a fresh new color and brought down the house every night.
Seattle Repertory Theatre’s production of God of Carnage opened this week — the first U.S. production beyond Broadway — featuring the crème of local stage actors (Hans Altwies, Amy Thorne, and Bhama Roget) and one pretty recognizable television/stage actor (Denis Arndt).
Honorable as it may be to eschew movie-star casting, it weirdly throws the play out of whack to have fellow-working mortals up there playing the set of couples who’ve come together to discuss their sons’ playground fight. Without the instant humor of watching a dignified, untouchable actor helplessly slide into mud, one searches too hard and too long to find that sweet spot here between realism and farce. Thus this 90-minute one-act production seems to end just as it's getting started.
As well, it stymies the mind to think why director Wilson Milam chose to set the action here in Seattle/Bellevue. It’s confusing to even place the drama precisely (Meydenbauer Park, but a view of the Space Needle?), and Eugene Lee’s stark all-white set looks like a high-priced Manhattan loft. Maybe, maybe, one can imagine these two oversized Mies van der Rohe loveseats in a new Belltown penthouse; but in a play about morality and aggression, isn’t it asking too much of viewers to acclimatize to a Northwest culture without a single reference to nature or computers or simplicity? And where’s the glass art??
Was it a bone for the audience, personalizing the play to name our city? In the London staging, Paris was still the play’s setting, and it fits with Reza’s rhythmic dips into linguistic play and symbolism.The Broadway production was the first to change locales – and they picked Brooklyn at the exact moment when Brooklyn earned its skewering. Moving it now to Seattle feels like a sad marketing ploy and a major miscue. We have plenty of societal elements to mock here, but there’s no way the combined ingredients in Reza’s world (pharmaceutical company lawyer, spilled makeup, coveted rum) spell Northwest.
Still, the performance of Amy Thone as the coiled Sanctimommy, ready to fight for her parenting principles, is reason enough to see this production. Her breathing patterns alone are as committed and enthralling as the physical and psychic horseplay between Thone and her real-life husband Hans Altwies. Scenes between the weighty Thone and the empty-calorie couple of Arndt and Roget are also standout moments.
Playwright Reza’s ear for language is also sustaining, and she’s carefully crafted a semiotics of every possession identified in the piece. For these couples, words are as real as the other objects they depend upon and protect. And Reza lays down a subtle path of hard K sounds from the moment the talk begins — it’s all ‘clafoutis,’ ‘contingency’, ‘culture,’ ‘Kokoschka,' 'Kalashnikov’ — such that when the word ‘carnage’ is finally uttered, it clicks right into place.
If you go: God of Carnage, through Oct. 24, Seattle Repertory Theatre, 155 Mercer St., Seattle. Tickets cost $15 to $59 and are available here.