In a chic urban apartment where art hangs with ostentatious regard, two married couples have met to discuss a playground scuffle that left one of their children bloody and missing teeth.
Seated on one side are the Raleighs, Annette (Emily Jones) and Alan (Daniel McKeever), parents of the aggressor and the invited guests to this summit. He's a lawyer conjoined to his cellphone; she's in wealth management. On the other side are the Novaks, Veronica (Phoebe Oosterhuis) and Michael (Eric Paine), parents of the victim. She's a writer fascinated by all things African; he's a bootstrapped wholesaler.
When God of Carnage, currently running at Modern Theater Coeur d'Alene, begins, the Novaks are politely outlining the terms of the truce, marveling at the group's ability to transcend the barbarity of the incident that brought them together, and the Raleighs are largely reciprocating that politeness — even when Alan, in a revealing hint at his boorish arrogance, casually objects to a word in the official statement that Veronica is drafting on her laptop. Oppressive silences fill the room when small talk runs dry.
For the viewer, this is about 10 exquisitely uncomfortable minutes of private glances and conversational subtext. Jones packs years of cumulative disgust in the looks she gives her stage husband, who's too self-involved to spot them. Paine, meanwhile, showcases his strength in making the occasionally starchy script — hard to say whether this is down to playwright Yasmina Reza or her French-to-English translator, Christopher Hampton — sound like natural conversation.
Beneath this apparent civility seethe personal insecurities, biases, grudges, assumptions and vulgarities, all of which will soon be exposed by the tangential arguments erupting from the central issue. Think of it as a Lord of the Flies set among clafouti-nibbling sophisticates. Veronica, for instance, appears to find violence almost incomprehensible, and she might be sincere. But she's also not above letting verbal push come to physical shove.
God of Carnage traces a clear, sometimes heavy-handed retrogression from gentility to childish rage, yet director Heather McHenry-Kroetch doesn't allow it to devolve into an hour of people shouting at one another. The characters' shifting allegiances are mirrored in ballet-like blocking, and there are moments of vulnerability and tenderness, though more gradation is needed between the emotional rises and falls. This production never quite recaptures the flawlessness of its exposition (nor does Reza's play fully come to grips with the Pandora's box it opens), but its sardonic, cathartic humor can be awfully fun. ♦
God of Carnage • Through April 12; Thu-Sat at 7:30 pm, Sun at 2 pm • $13-$21 • The Modern Theater Coeur d'Alene • 1320 E. Garden Ave. • themoderntheater.org • (208) 676-PLAY