Although American audiences view Yasmina Reza’s plays as non-stop comedies, Reza herself sees the plays as “tragedies that happen to be funny.” After seeing the Goodman Theatre production of her Tony Award-winning “God of Carnage,” I have to agree with her. This is no farce or comedy of manners; this is a tragedy of the human spirit, a cynical portrayal of people at their worst with the implication that they don’t even have a best to aspire to.
Two upper-middle-class couples meet to discuss a violent altercation between their adolescent sons; one insulted the other, and the affronted boy knocked out the other’s front teeth with a stick. Veronica (a pitch-perfect Mary Beth Fisher), mother of the toothless boy, wants a civilized discussion, but it soon becomes apparent that the other three (and the play itself) have no intention of siding with what they see as the dishonest façade of civilization.
The discussion, which escalates quickly into a drunken brawl, is highly entertaining to watch, with many hilarious moments; Alan (David Pasquesi) takes frequent phone calls concerning just how to lie to the public about a dangerous pharmaceutical, and Annette (Beth Lacke) vomits all over Veronica’s expensive art books out of nervousness. The actors comfortably inhabit their characters, and the costume and set design strike just the right notes of bourgeois affectation.
But the play’s relentless insistence on showing just how self-interested and degraded each character is would mean more if the characters were allowed to develop fully, rather than being reduced to ciphers in a shallow argument about the baseness of human nature, or if the misogyny didn't bleed through so noticeably.
The setup of “God of Carnage” should lead to a cathartic exploration of our deepest desires and what that means for human interaction, but instead we watch four excellent actors throw a 70-minute group tantrum.