ALBANY, N.Y. -- Jo Winiarski's well-appointed setting for Yasmina Reza's "God of Carnage"at Capital Repertory Theatre may look like an apartment in Brook lyn's Cobble Hill neighborhood. In fact, it's a minefield.
The apartment is the home of Michael and Veronica Novak (Ken Krugman and Brigitte Viellieu-Davis), a household goods wholesaler and his idealistic determined wife, a writer and art historian, whose son's teeth have been damaged in an attack by a stick-wielding classmate in their school playground
As the lights come up, Michael and Veronica are working with the parents of the boy who attacked Benjamin -- Alan Raleigh (Michael Mckenzie), a high-powered lawyer for a pharmaceutical company, and his wife, Annette (Brenny Rabine), who works in wealth management and whose mousy, "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf's" Honeylike demeanor belies the sharp, fiercely protective, aggressive impulses of a mother jungle cat whose offspring are in harm's way.
For awhile, it's all social pleasantries -- coffee, clafoutis and courtesy as the foursome tries to negotiate the terms of a personal, face-to-face apology issued to the Novak's wounded Benjamin by the Raleighs' son, Henry, even if the issues that led to Henry's attack on Benjamin are not so cut-and-dry.
Their progress is not helped by the constant interruptions of Alan's cellphone as he tries to head off a potential legal and public relations nightmare at the drug company he represents.
Negotiations between the Novaks and the Raleighs are delicate. The issues have as much to do with words, how they are used, what they mean, what they reveal at the most nuanced level, as they have to do with responsibility and with the bad behavior of a youngster, Henry, who is, at one point, described by his own father as a savage.
"We're very touched by your generosity," Annette tells Veronica. "We appreciate the fact that you're trying to calm the situation down rather than exacerbate it."
"Frankly, it's the least we can do," Veronica replies, with her husband's assent.
"Not at all," Annette says. "How many parents standing up for their children become infantile themselves?"
Good question. It comes as no surprise, then, that the inevitable happens. The measured-talking-around-just-stopping-short-of conversational game these four have been playing comes to an end and it's open season. Like a scab that's been picked at and picked at and picked at, the wound underneath finally is laid bare and the blood flows freely.
Fault lines in the two marriages are exposed. Loyalties are questioned. Motherly instincts and male prerogatives assert themselves.
As incivility and raw emotion take over, it's not unimaginable that the two boys will, left to their own devices, find their own resolution. But resolution is not something that's in the cards for these four. Reza works up a good head of steam -- as do director Maggie Mancinelli-Cahill's actors -- only to have that steam simply dissipate into thin air.
Reza's writing here is nowhere near as incisive or insightful as it is in her vastly superior "Art," in which a white-on-white painting exposes the fault lines in the friendship among three men. Reza is asking us to look at the value of our relationships, especially closely held friendships.
In "God of Carnage," however, very little seems at stake either for us or for Reza's characters. Other than the promise of more espresso and clafoutis ("Is it a cake or a tart?" Michael asks at one point), there is little reason for Alan and Annette to hang around and not leave when Alan first suggests they should.
Reza's characters are rarely more than who they say they are; less, in fact, with Krugman's Michael who, other than pulling his shirt out of his trousers and letting it hang loose, never makes a persuasive case for his working-class impulses.
As Alan, Mckenzie is marginally more successful in playing nuances -- "Money in that, is there?" he says with just an edge of a contemptuous sneer in response to Michael's description of what he sells.
Mancinelli-Cahill's staging is often revealing and insightful, far more so than anything said by any one of these four uninteresting, unsympathetic characters in search of a play.
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New musical. Title to be announced. March 1-31
Red by John Logan. April 19-May 19.
Complete information about shows, subscriptions or tickets available at Tickets by Proctors -- (518) 445-7469 or online at www.capitalrep.org