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‘God of Carnage’: Bad Things Happen to the Best Sort of Parents

We’ve all met parents like Veronica and Michael Novak, and Alan and Annette Raleigh, two couples who meet to discuss a fight between their two young sons, Henry and Ben, in Yasmina Reza’s play God of Carnage , currently running at Northern Stage in White River Junction. The Novaks and the Raleighs are sophisticated, educated and ostensibly civilized, able, they think, to methodically and politely hammer out the details of an apology. Ben has knocked out two of Henry’s teeth in the schoolyard and the Raleighs, Ben’s parents, have been invited to a summit at the Novaks’ house in Brooklyn. The friction in the air practically vibrates, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf for the urban professional set.

In a crackling, energetic production directed by Catherine Doherty, what appears to be a mutual resolve by the parents to put the incident behind them rapidly breaks down into hackles-raised hostility as accusations are traded. Which child was the offender, and which the offended? It sounds simple enough, but when it comes to defending one’s child, a primal, assertive, protective instinct can be quick to emerge.

Reza, who lives in France, has had her plays, which include the Tony Award-winning Art , translated into 35 languages. One of God of Carnage ’s clever conceits is that it can take place in any city in the world where tensions simmer among uber-educated, controlling parents of a certain pay grade who compete with each other through their children. Productions of God of Carnage have been staged in the U.K, the U.S., France, Ireland, Spain, Eastern Europe and the United Arab Emirates.

When the well-known English playwright Christopher Hampton, who also adapted Les Liaisons Dangereuses for the stage, translated God of Carnage into English, he set the American version in Brooklyn — an inspired stroke.

As a worldwide symbol of hipster creativity, Brooklyn also exemplifies the fault lines of gentrification, with its virtues and drawbacks. With its now tony neighborhoods of Park Slope, Carroll Gardens and Cobble Hill, where the play is set, Brooklyn is easily satirized as a place where Baby Bjorn-wearing moms write scathing blogs criticizing other moms, and doting parents tote their children everywhere, going so far as to bring portable cribs with them to sidewalk bistros. (Would you like a sippy cup with your steak frites?) Sanctimony is, frequently, the lingua franca.

Reza has a facility for writing dramatic situations, and plum roles for actors, with a lacerating wit. She’s also very adept at dramatizing behavior. The parents rapidly turn into quarreling children as they hurl verbal bombs first at each other, and then at their partners. The disappointments and petty animosities of marriage, the exhaustion of being a parent, the carefully nurtured illusions about their own status and ambitions in life: all come bobbing to the surface. The conflicts of gender roles are front and center. As the play progresses, the characters seem as much animal as human, chest-pounding chimpanzees staking out their territory.

There is one genuinely shocking, visceral moment in the play that quite brilliantly crystallizes all the turmoil. Yet it’s also a bit of a stunt that illustrates the predictability of the way the drama plays out in the end. The tightly wound, moralizing, intellectual Veronica behaves as you expect her to; so does her self-described “neanderthal” husband Michael. The uptight, cut-throat corporate lawyer Alan Raleigh barks orders and is connected to his cell phone by a metaphorical umbilical cord.

The incidents and characters are funny, and the speeches incisive, and all get the laughter Reza aims for, but they also don’t expand the play’s horizon emotionally beyond the confines of the Novaks’ livingroom. The exception is the character of Annette Raleigh who, in Reza’s writing, gets at the deeper feelings of abandonment, insecurity and rage that an unsatisfying marriage can provoke.

The acting is uniformly terrific. Kathryn Markey (Veronica Novak), who has starred at Northern Stage in Boeing-Boeing and Dancing at Lughnasa , is a deliciously aggressive intellectual snob who parses word choices as if she were negotiating a nuclear arms control treaty. Joe Gately is Michael Novak, an unpretentious, amiable regular guy whose let’s-all-get-along normality explodes later and is revealed as contempt for almost anybody different from him. Gregory Jones is spot-on as Alan Raleigh, with his pretensions, his love of power and his boorishness. Lena Kaminsky (Annette Raleigh) gives a beautifully calibrated performance that balances neurosis, pathos and isolation: she’s painfully funny to watch.

God of Carnage continues at Northern Stage through Nov. 17. For tickets and information, go to northernstage.org or call 802-296-7000.

Nicola Smith can be reached at nsmith@vnews.com.