Yasmina Reza's Tony-winning comedy God of Carnage certainly has its fans. But then so does the sport of Australian dwarf-tossing.
As evidenced by the erratically orchestrated production running now at Marin Theatre Company, Reza's jumpy tale certainly shows potential for farcical exploration of the human condition. A recent production in San Jose focused on moments of slapstick and over-the-top performances, which matched the story's edge-of-believability twists and hairpin turns of character development.
At MTC, director Ryan Rilette—one of the Bay Area's boldest and best directors—takes a risk in paring the comedy back, presumably in order to expose the sharp edges of Reza's caustic social commentary. All it ends up exposing, though, is the weakness in Reza's too obvious writing (or, to be fair, perhaps the oversimplicity of the English translation by Christopher Hampton). It's like taking Mel Brooks' Blazing Saddles, toning down the slapstick and using it to present a hard-hitting view of racism and alcoholism in the Old West. Without Brooks' humor turned up to maximum, all you'd be left with is a sloppy story with unconvincing characters.
In Carnage, two middle-aged New York couples—the Novaks (Stacy Ross and Remi Sandri) and the Raleighs (Rachel Harker and Warren David Keith) meet to discuss the recent playground fight between the couples' 11-year-old sons. At the Novaks' pristine apartment, furnished metaphorically with a wall of tribal masks above a low bookshelf of literary tomes, the foursome begin well-intentioned enough but quickly devolve into grotesquely base and uncivilized behavior.
Which, of course, is Reza's not-so-original point, bluntly hammered over and over: humans are not as evolved as they like to think. Beneath the veneer of societal politeness waits a seething miasma of Neanderthal urges. Big whoop. Playwrights have been making the same point, and making it far better, for centuries. Were there any actual hilarity to the characters' endless fighting, drinking, confessing, accusing, attacking and vomiting (projectile-style, one of the few truly surprising moments), there might have been some entertainment here. The actors bring their A-game to the material, but to little avail.
To his credit, Rilette keeps things clipping along; the play runs just under 90 minutes, with no intermission. And yet its all-around unpleasantness makes it feel much longer. By suppressing what few opportunities for laughs exist in the play, Rilette leaves his actors, and the audience, with little to do but wait for the ugly evening to end.
'God of Carnage' runs Tuesday–Sunday through June 24 at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley. Showtimes vary. $34–$55. 415.388.5208.