Toward the beginning of Center Stage's production of God of Carnage, the audience seemed unsure about whether it was OK to laugh. Sitting in a black box theater mere feet away from characters who were treating their sons' playground fight with absolute diplomatic seriousness, it felt rude to laugh — until a lone audience member started cackling. We all loosened up after that.
Yes, it's OK to laugh during God of Carnage. Yasmina Rice's script and the College of Charleston students' acting are dryly, blackly, mercilessly humorous, puncturing the characters' inflated self-righteousness and providing an intimate view of 21st-century narcissism that makes us chuckle even as we cringe. The play begins in excruciating fashion, with the concerned couple Veronica and Michael Novak (Margaret Nyland and Peter Spearman) hosting another couple, Annette and Alan Raleigh (Diana Biffl and Christian Persico), in their home and negotiating the terms of a resolution to their sons' recent dustup. Over the course of a single act, this high-minded peace talk gradually devolves into personal attacks and a debate about whether or not Michael killed the family hamster.
Things get deliciously petty, and the actors portray their characters' moral foibles with convincing realism. They're aided by director and set designer Ryan Gunning's minimal set and by costume designer McKenna DuBose's efficient choices. Portraying Michael, for instance, Spearman plays the Woody Allen neurotic to a T in the early minutes, and his wardrobe looks perfectly frumpy with too-short pants, white socks, and brown shoes. For her part as a haughty human rights crusader and helicopter mom, Nyland displays impeccable timing, hooking all of the other characters with one barb after another until the audience begins to feel the characters' exasperation with her. And Biffl effectively captures the fury of a spurned wife beside Persico's slick self-assurance. As alliances shift between the characters, all of the actors show remarkable dexterity, turning against each other on a dime and saving the real venom for the lines that hurt the worst.
Having never seen a production of the play or Roman Polanski's film adaptation of it before, I walked into God of Carnage wondering if the title wasn't a tad overblown for a drama about passive-aggressive bickering between well-to-do parents. It isn't. Big questions are at stake here, questions about the merits of nihilism and the paucity of caring in fractured American communities. But the play is hardly a treatise. In Gunning's treatment, it's actually a lot of fun. Because while you're thinking heavy thoughts, you get to watch plenty of alcohol-enabled slophouse buffoonery, several rounds of PC liberal guilt-tripping, and a magnificent spray of runny white vomit. Yes, beware if you sit in the front row: You might be in the splash zone.