By Howard Shapiro
INQUIRER STAFF WRITER
Two 11-year-old boys in a park, one of them says something (or doesn’t), the other one takes a stick and bashes him. Whack! Two teeth are toast.
That’s what happens before the Tony-winning play God of Carnage begins, before the two sets of parents sit down to meet each other and discuss the — how do you say? — incident. Before the adult bashing begins.
“Fortunately, there is still such a thing as the art of co-existence, isn’t there?” says the bashed boy’s mom and you know, you just know, that the stage of the Walnut Street Theatre is bound to become a battleground. (One reason you may know: Last year’s trailer of the film made from the play skunked everything by giving away the plot, as it is, and the script’s best surprises.)
Yasmina Reza’s devilishly funny look at uncivil adults was a hit when it opened in 2009 on Broadway, played for all the nastiness it’s worth. At the Walnut, where the comedy of mannerlessness opened Wednesday night, it’s a similar all-out dive into sharp-tongued acrimony — with an underlying sadness in the background of many of the laugh lines.
That’s what makes Reza’s play so rich: These seemingly amicable couples, pushed into conflict by their kids, are quietly furious that they’re there in the first place. Distrust comes with a few off-hand comments, defenses sharpen, and with the introduction of liquor the four characters are outright defiant — and as unhappy with themselves and their spouses as they are with the situation.
The Walnut’s producing artistic director Bernard Havard spins this situation until there’s no turning back — and if you can’t bring God of Carnage over the top by the end of its single act, you may as well not stage it. Reza’s work must hold a certain charm for Havard, whose artistic management duties generally keep him away from stage-side nitty gritty; the last play he directed himself at the Walnut was Reza’s equally delicious Art, 10 seasons back.
He has a dream cast for the task: veteran Philadelphia actors Greg Wood and Susan Riley Stevens — married in real life — play the couple whose kid was the attacking public menace, as he comes to be called; Julie Czarnecki and Ben Lipitz are the parents of the abused kid, who may have provoked the demise of his teeth. The four of them have every aspect of their characters down — each has a distinct set of peccadillos, and as they play goes forward, these quirks become their defining aspects.
God of Carnage spins out of control in the living room where the bashed kid lives — a set designed and furnished in pure white and fiery red by Robert Andrew Kovach. The very color scheme says, look out. Just what Reza is trying to tell us, I’m not certain and I don’t care. She says it with abandon and great humor, and if God of Carnage is nothing more than a situation reflecting the worst in people, that will be enough.
Contact staff writer Howard Shapiro at 215-854-5727, firstname.lastname@example.org, or #philastage on Twitter.
God of Carnage: Through April 29 at Walnut Street Theatre, 825 Walnut St. Tickets: $10-$85. Information: 215-574-3550 or www.walnutstreettheatre.org.