"How many parents sticking up for their children become infantile themselves?" asks one of the self-congratulatory moms early in God of Carnage, now playing at the Alliance Theatre. French playwright Yasmina Reza uses the line as a billboard-size signal of the conflict to come. God of Carnage depicts two pairs of parents who meet to form a civilized resolution to a violent playground dispute between their respective sons. In less than an hour, their good intentions devolve to tantrums, bullying, vomiting, and other behaviors that make actual infants look mature.
At first the parents explore differing interpretations of the inciting event, in which one 11-year-old struck another in the face with a stick, damaging two teeth. As an oft-produced, transatlantic hit, God of Carnage itself invites multiple interpretations as a relatively straightforward drama with four actors, a single set, and an unbroken running time of about 80 minutes. Atlanta audiences can contrast two visions of the caustic comedy as Roman Polanski's film version, simply called Carnage, and starring four Oscar-caliber actors, plays at the Landmark Midtown Art Cinema. The Alliance Theatre concurrently stages the first all African-American production in the show's history.
Christopher Hampton wrote the English translation for stage and screen, but the two scripts have subtle differences. Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly play Penelope and Michael, the victim's parents. Christoph Waltz and Kate Winslet play Alan and Nancy, the instigator's parents. Between the two versions, only the husbands have the same names. The Alliance Theatre production pits Veronica and Michael (Jasmine Guy and Keith Randolph Smith) against Alan and Annette (Geoffrey Darnell Williams and Crystal Fox).
The couples begin by politely disagreeing over the best words to describe the incident. Is it fair to say the aggressor was "armed" with a stick? Or that he "disfigured" the other boy? Michael in particular takes pains to smooth out differences with the other couple. In the stage version, Smith amusingly plays a sweater-wearing stroller dad with a dark side.
High-powered lawyer Alan strikes an unharmonious note, first through his constant interruptions to take business calls on his bluetooth. While the parents try to work out the best way for their sons to take responsibility, Alan advises a corporate client to shirk its civic duty in the face of a scandal. It's a heavy-handed device, but thanks to his earpiece, the stage play makes a running joke of Alan seeming to agree with the others, only to reveal that he's back on the phone.
Between Alan's aggressive indifference to the meeting and Penelope/Veronica's brittle insistence that they turn the fight into a teachable moment, tensions mount to the breaking point. Eventually the couples drop their genteel manners and bicker viciously. Michael, in particular, proclaims he's a "Neanderthal" and sneers at his wife's attempt to disguise him as a liberal. The hostilities shift from couple vs. couple to men vs. women to cynics vs. Penelope/Veronica as the lone, discouraged believer in humanity.
God of Carnage dramatizes universal themes and character flaws, so nothing about the material contradicts the Alliance's African-American production. A reference to the KKK and a racial epithet prove even more charged, and when Annette mentions a tough-love approach to their kid, you can hear the faintest echo of Madea's approach to parenting. The theatrical version seems more thoroughly peppered with profanity, with the wives using innuendo to question their husband's sexual prowess.
Frankly, Reza's wicked satire of privileged political correctness seems sharper with the film's Caucasian characters, particularly Penelope. There's no liberal guilt like white liberal guilt, and Penelope's announcement that she's researching a book on Darfur seems slightly fatuous compared to her black counterpart. In the film, Penelope's frustrations at life's injustices make her so intense, her neck muscles practically pop out. Foster's performance makes the character resemble a really, really intense resident of politically correct "Portlandia."
The film version coops up the characters in Michael and Penelope's apartment, with brief trips to the hallway. As the conversation degrades and the claustrophobia rises, you can't believe that Alan and Nancy wouldn't just walk out. Their stasis makes more sense in the theater, because we know the actors can't really go anywhere and the Alliance Mainstage's huge, open space gives them more breathing room. A theater audience will also more readily accept director Kent Gash's moments of stylized staging. At one point an exhausted Jasmine Guy drapes herself over a coffee table like a sacrificial victim, and Williams crouches above her to explain his dog-eat-dog belief in a god of carnage. The eventual set-trashing antics ultimately feel canned.
Polanski can use close-ups to his advantage, which makes an enormous difference when Alan has a phone call with Michael's mother. While the scene looks more perfunctory on stage, the film registers the discomfort in Waltz's expression as he reluctantly does the right thing, in defiance of his own brutal philosophy. It's the most genuinely optimistic moment in either show.
Both versions of the story take pleasure in turning a polite get-together into a blood sport, but they can equally tax an audience's patience, even with their brisk running times. The spouses debate moral concepts in occasionally abstract terms that seem more natural for French than Americans, or at least French characters vs. American ones. The classic Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf strikes even more sparks with its combative couples at literally twice the running time, because Edward Albee paces the action and parses the relationships with more realism and depth. The Carnage couples seem smaller and more petty.
To compare the Roman Polanski film with the Kent Gash production seems like the difference between seeing a vintage Muhammad Ali boxing match on video and watching a lower-stakes live bout from a ringside seat. The video might offer a better fight, but the live event puts you in arm's length of the fray.
Go to hell Kombo!
When will you be accepting applicants for the 2014 competition?
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