Nina Ball's set for Marin Theatre Company's production of God of Carnage is one of the most apt and striking designs for the stage that we've seen in a while. It clearly announces its characters' class, with its high ceilings, tasteful-but-sparse living room furniture in unassuming earthtones, and scrupulously arranged ornaments. But at the same time, the set seems to hail from another world. It's eerily symmetrical, bifurcating the room in a way that seems better suited to fighting than to living. Large African masks loom from its walls -- Veronica (Stacy Ross), one of the owners of the living room "specializes in Africa" -- so dominating the stage that the set seems less living room than lair or shrine. Finally, because Ball shows only the supports and the rafters, not the actual walls or ceilings, the curved wooden beams form a lattice that makes the stage look like a giant cage floating in space -- perfect for a play in which no one can leave.
It's not like the characters don't want to. Veronica and her husband Michael (Remi Sandri) have invited over Annette (Rachel Harker) and her husband Alan (Warren David Keith) under distressing circumstances: One couple's son bashed out the teeth of the other couple's son on the playground. As the play begins, the parents are meeting to get their stories straight and to figure out how to discipline the boys. It begins a labored effort at politesse: A dessert of clafoutis is offered, décor is feigned interest in, roles in school plays are remembered, all through frozen smiles that strain to match upscale attire (the richly detailed costumes are by Meg Neville).
But it doesn't take much to crack the façade of civilization as playwright Yasmina Reza sees it. The sons' altercation unleashes something primal in their parents. At first, the hostility shows a modicum of restraint, as in lines like, "I'd have preferred it if it hadn't cost my son two teeth," or, "Why do you feel the need to slide in 'on purpose'? What kind of message is that supposed to be sending me?"
Before long the parents become more childish than their children -- and more beastly. Characters whimper and wrestle. They verbally devastate and physically destroy. One even suffers a cataclysmic bodily malfunction. All this, Reza suggests, lurks under the mannered pretensions of the upper middle class. Absurdly, her characters hold onto just enough of their bourgeois sense of duty to stay together, even as, in the course of one visit, they ruin each other's lives.
Reza's comedy of manners is among the most successful plays of the past decade. It ran on Broadway for more than a year, it has been performed throughout the world, and it was adapted into a film. Part of its success comes from the pleasure of seeing surface manners exploded, but another part comes from the four great comedic roles created by Reza, who was trained as an actor.
There's Veronica, who's ever ready to lecture about cooking, Darfur, Kokoschka, or playground morality, but who also stomps and punches when she gets upset -- a perfect set of attributes for the viper-like Ross. There's her husband Michael, who begins the play acquiescing to whoever happens to be talking at the moment but then later declares, "What I am and have always been is a fucking Neanderthal," a line Sandri brilliantly emphasizes by ripping off his shirt. There's Alan, who's glued to his cell phone and who says things like, "Madam, our son is a savage," which Keith delivers with his delicious characteristic gruffness. And finally, there's his wife Annette who, in the surprise of the show, transforms from meek, ignored spouse to unhinged lush. Harker makes her drunkenness downright artistic. She spills over the furniture and wobbles her way through line readings in a way that makes you appreciate her bold choices even as she plumbs the depths of slovenliness.
If the pace of Ryan Rilette's direction isn't quite as brisk or the tension as ferocious as it could be, Marin Theatre Company's production is still very fine, and it's a fitting show for Mill Valley, where you can easily imagine parents down the block getting embroiled in similar, if less exaggerated, conflicts. The cage of civilization, Reza warns, is all that separates us from the worst day of our lives. But watching others experience their worst makes for some of the best comedy on contemporary stages.
God of Carnage has been extended through June 24 at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller (at Evergreen), Mill Valley. Admission is $15-$55.