SALT LAKE CITY — Parenting is a tricky business; as a single, childless individual I find it incredibly intimidating. Yasmina Reza’s Tony award-winning God of Carnage, translated by Christopher Hampton, goes a step further, an experiment in the potentially punishing arena of parents interacting with, well, other parents.
The play opens with Veronica and Michael (Nell Gwynn and Zach Phifer) playing host to Annette and Alan (Christy Summerhays and Darrin Doman). Their dialogue at first is stilted and polite, peppered with awkward pauses. These are not friends gathering for a cocktail; rather, they are the parents of two young boys who brawled in the park. It turns out that Annette and Alan’s son Benjamin, upon being called a snitch, attacked Veronica and Michael’s Henry, knocking out two of his teeth. Over the course of the play, the couples exchange niceties that turn to verbal barbs and full-on physical confrontations as these parents devolve, with the help of a little rum, from sophisticated adults to petulant children.
The main reason to see this premiere at Salt Lake Acting Company is the strength of the performances. The cast is small, and there is no room — quite literally — for a weak link, mostly because this is a world where the weak get eaten. Darrin Doman’s Alan is a cold fish of a lawyer who makes it clear he’d rather be anywhere else. As his wife Annette, Christy Summerhays gives a complex performance as a mother who at once recognizes her son’s issues and yet never really concedes his guilt; Summerhays communicated a great sense of tension that carried throughout the show; I was anxious because she was anxious, a feeling that never quite let up. Nell Gwynn’s voice, which I fell in love with during last season’s Angels in America, is a weapon here that I didn’t want to see sheathed. And as Michael, Zach Phifer is a hamster-murdering grizzly bear that I just wanted to hug . . . after giving him a good swift kick.
The great thing about the ensemble’s slow spiral into chaos is that it’s never a sure thing. Just like their quarreling kids, the Novaks and the Raleighs are unpredictable. They scream and cry, they get caught up in details that no one else sees as important, they switch loyalties at the drop of a hat. It’s in those quick exchanges, performed with speed and skill, that the actors really excel and a sort of voyeurism clicks in. The play happens in real time, and in the passage of a quick afternoon the audience feels that they are witnessing something at once insane and disconcertingly familiar.
Keven Myhre’s set — Veronica and Michael’s living room — is a handsome exercise in pretense, appropriate both to Veronica’s self-importance as an art expert, and to the figurative bloodletting that the play becomes. The room is painted red, filled with sharp corners and angular furniture; centered on the back wall is a large, bare tree branch, a constant reminder to both sets of parents — as well as the audience — of the skirmish that started it all.
While the play at times feels like an anthropological diorama — some of the plotted action, while funny, seems forced and contrived — there is something brutal in the honesty that comes out between these two couples. Something far beyond polite conversation and superficial apologies. These four see each other not only at their most vulnerable, but at their most raw and real, something that I credit to director John Caywood and his very capable cast. That something, that primal instinct, makes SLAC’s current production of God of Carnage worth not only seeing, but savoring.