ST. PETERSBURG — Somewhere in the thorny crevices of the soul, people know their own truths. The best art brings that self-awareness to the surface.
To wit: If you're a mid-to-upper class parent, if you've ever displayed a book about less fortunate civilizations near a vase of tulips, if you've ever offered guests a pastry from a middle region of France, God of Carnage may prove illuminating and/or horrifying.
American Stage's final play of the season is deeply subversive yet uproariously funny. It feels so whip-fast you almost miss the glaring side-eye to the soul firing from Yasmina Reza's script.
Two children have just had a playground fight, and one has lost teeth. Their parents get together to talk about it, and because they are adults who work in fancy fields, they know they can work it out with dignity.
"How many parents become infantile themselves when they're sticking up for their children?" one character muses, certain they can avoid the same low-brow fate.
Sure they can!
The home of Michael and Veronica Novak is furnished with cozy sofas set against cold steel and glass accents. Michael (Brian Shea) runs a wholesale business slinging doorknobs and frying pans. Veronica (Cathy Schenkelberg) is writing a book on Darfur and wears leggings under long dresses. They call each other "Darjeeling," after the tea.
Alan and Annette Raleigh are their visitors. Annette (Katherine Michelle Tanner) works vaguely in "wealth management." Alan (Billy Edwards) is an insufferable lawyer defending a sketchy big pharmaceutical company. His perpetually ringing cell phone nearly becomes a fifth character.
It starts out nice enough, though oozing with delicious passive aggression.
"You have to taste the clafoutis," says Michael, ushering out a pear and apple confection. "Good clafoutis is an endangered species." That's cla-foo-TAY, by the way.
But for the next 85 minutes (no intermission) we watch the parents fall into the carnage their kids executed more efficiently with a stick. The tension climbs with the help of vomiting, rum and name-calling. Little by little, their true characters are revealed.
The set by Scott Cooper is designed with room for only three people to sit at a time, forcing the physicality in a variety of directions, onto coffee tables and floors, even sending one character airborne as things begin to unravel.
It can be exhausting to watch people fight, but director Karla Hartley manages to avoid the shouting trap God of Carnage could fall into. There are great levels here, handled by the superb actors.
Shea is a wonder of comic timing, a husband so close to the brink of losing his mental lunch, he says things like, "Marriage is the most terrible ordeal God can inflict on you. Marriage and children." And Schenkelberg plays his loose-cannon wife with wild abandon through to her toes, visible once her shoes fly off.
Eventually, the whole set looks like a child's play place littered with prescription pill bottles and art books about people of the tundra. Adult toys, you know.
One piece remains intact, though.
It's a glass and marble sculpture on a podium, a Peter Wright original provided by the Duncan McClellan Gallery in partnership with American Stage. The piece is on sale for $6,000, and the proceeds will go back to the theater.
Yes, part of God of Carnage can be yours, if you can handle looking right at it.
Contact Stephanie Hayes at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8716. Follow @stephhayes.