Peeling the Veneer

Two sets of well-to-do parents meet in a well-appointed living room to discuss a small problem in a civilized manner. One of their sons has hit the other with a stick, damaging two of the latter’s teeth.

Yasmina Reza’s script starts with the matter of dental bills, but more importantly, an apology that’s meant to maintain the principles of civilized behaviour.

Before long, one of the parents has vomited over the valuable art books on the coffee table.

And this is only the beginning of the descent into chaos. Before the rum.

That the injured teeth are incisors resonates with the nervous grins the parents exchange from their respective leather seats as God of Carnage begins.

None of the characters are particularly sympathetic, with the possible exception of the hamster and the girl who loved him – and these two don’t appear onstage.

On the other hand, no one is a villain, and there are moments when I found myself liking each character.

The actors in this four-hander do well with their various roles. As Veronica, proponent of civilized principles, Deborah Turner Davis carries a contained passion whose leash frays and breaks.

Stephen Clarke kindles a likeable impulse to generosity as the cowardly, hypocritical and sometimes petty Michael.

Rosie Stuckless as Annette brings a wonderful drunken monologue and down to earth practicality to her role as manager of her lawyer husband’s wealth.

Jason Westover smirks roguishly but honestly in his role as Allan, barbarian lawyer, negligent father, and apologist for pharmaceutical companies and the “God of Carnage” alike.

Kaori Torigai’s costumes are as usual dead on and add to the characterization.

Allan’s blue shirt becomes just that little bit untucked as the play progresses, and Annette smoothing the white scarf over his coat gives us another dimension to their relationship.

Annette’s crocheted empire-waist sweater with ribbon trim over a pink shirt, with pearls, a trim grey skirt and pumps – perfect. The sweet fussiness adds contrast once she starts vomiting. You can see the dampness on the gathered collar after she returns from the bathroom.

Following the undercurrents between the characters may well be the most engaging part of the performance, and the actors do well with that. There’s the sniping within each marriage as each wife (particularly Veronica) tries to keep her husband on the script she has determined for the meeting.

The girls gang up on the guys and vice versa. Allan shows unexpected kindness by offering Kleenex to Veronica, but then mocks her with it. The unexpected sexual attraction between Veronica and Allan peels away the veneer as Veronica, without saying anything, has to confront an aspect of herself that doesn’t fit into her world view.

Allan’s character shares some features with Tony Soprano, charismatic barbarian of the Sopranos series. It’s interesting that James Gandolfini played the role of Michael, rather than Allan, in the Broadway production.

With two couples in a room with lots of booze, especially when someone starts to vomit, I can’t help compare the script to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? And I’m not sure it stands up to the comparison.

I hesitate to say this, because God of Carnage is a script that’s been places and is going places. It was made into a movie this year by none other than Roman Polanski.

But the stakes just aren’t as high as in Albee’s classic, so it’s harder to engage as fully. Though the couples complain about their spouses, and display unflattering sides of themselves and their marriages, there’s never the sense that they might be driving each other past the point of no return.

There’s talk of desperation but I don’t really see much of it. And I don’t think this is the fault of the actors. The original French script by Yasmina Reza is translated to English by Christopher Hampton.

Translation is difficult at any time, especially in theatre where we’re seeing emotion enacted.

The way emotion is expressed is one of the most culturally specific aspects of human behaviour, right up there with comedy. There’s a way that speakers of Latin languages seem to slip more readily into abstraction than English speakers.

Think about song lyrics translated from French – contrast French and English versions of “Autumn Leaves” – or look at English lyrics to Brazilian musician Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Wave”. I bet you wouldn’t find an English song singing “the fundamental loneliness goes” very often.

And yet the moments where physical violence turns into philosophy, hard to make natural in English, are inherent to the structure of God of Carnage.

The play ends with Michael asking, “What do we know?” If the play allows us to question some of our piously held beliefs, the ones we protect with all the zeal and lies we bring to parenting, then its mission is accomplished.

Donald Watt’s excellent set design leads you past wall art that celebrates the primitive, as you enter the space through a corridor and cross the living room to sit down – a process not unlike entering someone’s house. It’s a suitable initiation into the night’s entertainment.

Nicole Bauberger is a painter, writer and performer living in Whitehorse. Find out where you can see her work at

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