Saw the play "The God of Carnage" at the Guthrie last night, and I'm still thinking about it. It's a chamber piece that is very much like "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" but with less acid. Two couples, a living room, 90 minutes--it's short, it's interesting, but ultimately is it meaningful?
The set-up is that Veronica and Michael Novak have invited Annette and Alan Raleigh to discuss the fact that the Raleighs' son Benjamin has hit Henry Novak in the face with a stick at a neighborhood park. We never see or hear from the boys--this is all about the parents. At first, it is deeply cringe inducing--it is all to easy to imagine the parents of my acquaintance getting into exactly this sort of nurturing community disciplinary action. Two boys got into an altercation on a playground, and the parents have to convene and establish a joint response. That's right--the parents get together and have this weird discussion about what happened and how it happened, and it was deliberate and does Benjamin understand that he has disfigured his playmate. And at some point, the veneer of cooperation comes off.
Which it should, because, really? Veronica Novak is furious that this eleven-year old hooligan has hit her son, and she wants to know that he's going to be punished to her satisfaction. She wants him to be disciplined, she wants to know he feels guilty and miserable, and she wants retribution. But she's such a civilized New Yorker, that she can only come at that vengeance obliquely. She asks if Benjamin feels guilty, if he understands the violence he has perpetrated, and she's very disappointed to hear that Benjamin--as a fairly typical 11 year old--knows he's in trouble, but isn't particularly upset about it. So, Veronica insists that Benjamin be brought over to apologize to Henry, but only if he fully understands the seriousness of his behavior, and Veronica wants both the Raleighs to be present as well. And she does it in the guise of "teaching Benjamin" and "helping him so it doesn't happen again." She skates between being a hostess--it is her living room where the play takes place--and being a protector of her children. She doesn't scale to the heights of Greek or Jacobean revenge plays, but not because she doesn't feel the emotional impetus to it. She just tries to keep it on the level of NYC social niceties.
The Raleighs start the evening trying to be conciliatory and businesslike. Yes, our son hit your son, and we do not approve of his actions. What must we do to rectify the situation? They are tentative, rather abashed--it is clear that both sets of parents deeply identify with their children, and Benjamin's action has shamed his parents. They are willing to do what the Novaks ask to resolve the situation. But those relationships don't stay static.
Alan declares his son a "savage!" A way to distance himself and his own self-image from his boy. Then Veronica slips in one too many comments about her disapproval of Benjamin, and Alan is roused to his son's defense. The evening wears on, alcohol is introduced, and hints appear that perhaps Henry wasn't particularly innocent. There are intimations that Henry may have taunted Benjamin past that boy's ability to stand it. "But that's not the point here!" Veronica says, because she doesn't want to hear anything to disturb her conception of Henry as an innocent victim, which the Raleighs are willing to indulge up to a point, in the hopes of smoothing over the event.
Then as the discussion continues and (inevitably wanders), we see a divide along gender lines. The men understand that boys define their masculinity through strength and fighting, and they both have fond memories of their own boyhood that involved shows of dominance and successful fights. The mothers are appalled--as a fundamental difference over the proper level of "civilization" begins to show. The men begin to rebel against the smothering "niceness" of the women's world views, and begin to bond with each other over rum and cigars. But marital loyalties can't be entirely transgressed, and soon the men find themselves having to back up their wives.
But the rum loosens the lips, dissuades the Raleighs from leaving, and each of the characters begins to show their anger and disappointment at the world and their lives. At least two characters declare this as the "worst day of my life." Which is in stark contrast to the larger world which is referred to--Veronica has written a book on Darfur, and Alan is an attorney who has a case at the International Criminal Court at the Hague. This "worst" is far from the worst these characters know about--and yet they fully believe their claims.
Throughout the play, Alan's cell phone goes off: one of his clients is a pharmaceutical company and a new report has just come out about serious side effects of one of its drugs. Alan is counselling his client to go on th offensive--accuse the report of being an attempt to manipulate stock prices in advance of a shareholders' meeting, don't recall the drug, refuse to acknowledge any responsibility. This is the opposite of his role as a penitent in the Novak living room, and you see how he came to this meeting solely to pacify his wife. She is obviously engaged in a battle for attention from her husband--the cell goes off one too many times, after one too many glasses of rum, and she grabs it from his hand and dunks it into a vase of tulips, ruining it. Alan ends up on the floor in a tantrum of anger and frustration, his own ability to control his emotions reducing him to a toddler. Is it any wonder that the children of these "adults" misbehave themselves?
This is a play that is well-crafted, but not outstanding. The Guthrie actors were quite good, and the characters were distinct, but the production didn't really say anything new about human nature, parenting, or why it's not a good idea to drink a lot of rum on an empty stomach. It is possible to imagine how some truly great actors might elevate this play, and it turns out that Roman Polanski is making a movie version with what might just be a dream cast. Jodie Foster as Veronica, John C. Reilly as her husband Michael, Kate Winslet and Christoph Walz as Annette and Alan. Just imagining those four sitting stiffly in an elegant living room is to see the inherent tension of the situation, and it is easy to see how the various alliance could shift and coalesce.