LENOX — At first glance, Devon Drohan's at once spare and full setting for Shakespeare & Company's expertly acted and directed production of "God of Carnage" doesn't look like a playground, let alone a place for a good old-fashioned junkyard brawl.
With its trendy brick wall, sleek contemporary furniture, immaculately placed coffee table art books, this is the everything-in-its-place living room of an upper middle-class couple — Michael Novak (Jonathan Croy), who operates a successful household goods company, and his socially conscious wife, Veronica (Elizabeth Aspenlieder), who is working on a book about the horrors of Darfur. They have two children, a young daughter who's been somewhat traumatized by her father's cold-hearted dumping of her pet hamster on the streets outside their trendy Brooklyn apartment, and their 11-year-old son, Henry, who has been hit in the face with a stick and lost two incisors in the process as the result of a playground encounter with the 11-year-old son, Benjamin, of the couple whom the Novaks have ushered into their home.
The couple is a corporate lawyer, Alan Raleigh (Allyn Burrows) and his wife, Annette (Kristin Wold), who is in wealth management.
They have been invited to the Novaks to work out an amicable, civilized agreement of sorts over what's to happen as a result of the boys' tussle. The Novaks' hope is that the Raleighs will do their parental duty and persuade Benjamin to accept responsibility for the damage he has caused and to apologize.
Ah, if life were as simple as negotiating disputes in a civilized manner over espresso, clafoutis and rum. Of course, by the time Michael pulls out and begins pouring, liberally, his rare, top-shelf rum all pretense at civility have long since vanished.
Playground altercations rarely are simply a matter of who struck whom. There is the matter of why and where does the cause of the misbehavior lie; where the moral high ground lies.
It doesn't take too long for the fault lines not only between two sets of parents to be exposed, but also the fault lines within the marriages. Nor does it help that Raleigh, while he is trying to put out the fire with the Novaks, also is dealing with a threatening conflagration at a pharmaceutical company he represents when a whistle-blower releases an internal report that suggests the company's leading product, a blood pressure medication, is, in fact, dangerous
Reza is shrewd in her awareness of the nuances and often cruel subtleties that become not so subtle as one father, for all his recognition of the sheer savagery of his son, takes a kind of twisted masculine pride in his son's expression of a kind of John Wayne-Spartacus manliness, a feeling that is shared at a visceral level by the other father.
Moral allegiances shift; alliances are realigned and as they do you get the sense that issues that have long been left unexamined, hurts and wounds that gave gone unexposed or untreated, take over with a vengeance.
Director Regge Life has set all of this loose carefully, with precision and insight to the point that the emotional momentum of the characters takes over and the production moves with a stylish, penetrating energy all its own; grazing raw nerve endings with a blend of wild absurdity and pent-up emotion on the loose.
Croy's Michael struggles to stay on a kind of safe ground as he attempts to accommodate points of view that often contradict one another until, finally, off come his shirt and tie and jacket and we are in the throes of the man beneath the manner— a pure unashamed redneck and proud of it.
Aspenlieder's Veronica is a study in control, manners, confusion and fury as she tries desperately to maintain some kind of stability only to crumble in pure bewilderment — watch her as, at one point, she tearfully keeps arranging and rearranging the books and flowers on the coffee table in desperate need for some kind of order. She navigates a powerful and poignant dichotomy near the end — a furious attack, physical as well as verbal, on her husband at one moment; soothing and comforting her distraught daughter in a phone conversation at the next moment.
Wold's Annette is overwhelmed by her parental and moral imperative to do the right thing. When, at one point, she throws up over Veronica's coffee table art books, it is not only the remnants of Veronica's clafoutis that is pouring out; it is the bile of everything she has held in for too long.
Burrows' Alan is formidable — hard, pragmatic, cynical. He does not suffer fools gladly. If he is somewhat contemptuous of Veronica's concern for the tragedy in Darfur, it is because, unlike Veronica, he has seen its effects close up; he knows what the violence — violence with lethal consequences — can mean in the hands of children.
"God of Carnage" has its faults. A personal link between the faulty medicine and one of the characters in the play is far too convenient, and, while resolution of the issues her play raises are rarely as tidy as we might wish them to be, the whole affair collapses in a heap at the end, as if Reza simply ran out of steam.
Still, this is a masterly production, played to the hilt by performers who know precisely what they are doing, where they are going and how they want to get there even when the characters they are playing don't. Who knew that blood sport could be so invigorating, so stimulating, so richly entertaining?
Reach Jeffrey Borak at firstname.lastname@example.org