By JOHN DeMERS
Somewhere back in the mists of my childhood, I remember seeing something about an experiment involving lab mice. It was probably on black-and-white television, where so much of my childhood took place, and it (if I recall) placed several small dark mice in a sanitized, all-white environment and then started doing mean things to them. If we administer electric shock, what will the mice do? If we apply loud noise, what will they do? If we start filling the environment with water, what will they do?
This, of course, was before computer models would make the mice themselves unnecessary, though without actual mice at some point, we probably wouldn’t have had any computer models. And it certainly was before animal rights groups would have been protesting loudly outside. The whole idea was that if we watched what mice did under different kinds of pressure, we might learn something about what we would do. Times were simpler then.
I don’t know if French playwright Yasmina Reza ever saw the same experiment on television that I saw, or at least saw the computer models that surely grew out of it. But her huge Broadway hit God of Carnage, originally driven by an all-star cast from TV and the movies, shows every sign of similar inspiration. She takes four people – two married couples, though you wouldn’t guess it from the way they act sometimes – and sets them down in a sanitized, all-white environment, and then lets various pressures “make” them tear each other apart. Oh, and yes, she makes us in the audience laugh wildly through the whole thing.
Audiences members with any life experience will probably see some of themselves in each and every one of the four, though never for very long. That’s the brilliance of the play. Two civilized couples agree to meet and discuss a situation: one of their sons has hit the other with a stick and knocked out a couple teeth. We’re smart, we’re reasonable, we’re civilized – and absolutely, we are all so adult. We can simply chat over coffee and decide on a fair course of action. Well, as it turns out, no. Not only does this coffee talk disintegrate into cursing, screaming, and way too-much-information, but when the coffee is replaced by 10-year-old rum from Antigua, it’s something like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf performed by the Marx Brothers.
Sadly for the stargazers among us, the production of Carnage currently on display at the Alley does not feature James Gandolfini, Jeff Daniels, Hope Davis and/or Marcia Gay Harden (who, it now turns out, are all returning to their Broadway roles for a high-profile limited run this spring). What the production does have is a quartet of fine actors who’ve performed the play together already, at Seattle Repertory Theatre.
Denis Arndt shines as the high-powered phamaceutical lawyer who can’t keep his cell phone off his ear, no matter how intense the in-person discussion, with Bhama Roget almost stealing the show as his wife with a tendency to drink rum until she throws up, not necessarily in that order. Hans Altwies and Amy Thone (who are married to each other in real life) try their best to stay civil as a happy, well-adjusted couple with all the right amounts of “caring” – except when they spend more time ripping into each other than into the couple whose son “disfigured” theirs.
God of Carnage at the Alley is a wild ride. And though you’ll come away with no easy answers to the questions it raises about the savagery we all carry within, you should feel relieved that you didn’t have to be the lab mice.
Photos by Chris Bennion: (top) Hans Altwies, Denis Arndt and Bhama Roget; (bottom) Amy Thone, Arndt and Altwies.