God of Carnage at the IRT: Of Cavemen and Hamsters

It’s a room you’ve seen a hundred times before. It’s classic and tasteful, the lighting soft, the couches buttery Italian leather. Precious and beautiful objects are displayed with the revernce of museum pieces. But there’s a hint of something wrong–the orange on the walls is just a bit too strident, the chair and couch seating combination just a bit off-balanced. From the instant you look at the set for God of Carnage, you know that you’ll be dealing with sophisticated, urbane yuppies who love their kids, shop at Whole Foods and always, always recycle. But what you’ll also be dealing with is projectile vomiting, hamster murder and a hilariously foul-mouthed comedy of manners.

From left to right, Tim Grimm, Shannon Holt, Constance Macy and Ryan Artzberger in God of Carnage

Being a native of Zionsville, that posh enclave just to the northwest of Indianapolis that makes Stepford look unkempt, the characters and the setting of this play spoke to me deeply. The plot is simple: Two parents meet to discuss a fight between their 11-year-old sons. There are only four characters, the seemingly-gentile Veronica and Michael Novak (parents of the victim) and uptight, career-driven Annette and Alan Raleigh (parents of the aggressor). As the parents discuss the incident, layers of civility are peeled back, slowly and masterfully. You don’t only hear the devolution of manners and accepted rules of politeness in the dialogue (which was brilliantly written by French playwright Yasmina Reza), but even more impressively, you see it unfold. You see the parents’ choice of beverages change from espresso to coffee to Coca-Cola to rum. You see jackets come off, hair come down, high heels kicked under a table. And you see that for all the fine trappings and beautiful things and protestations of civilization, we’re all just men and women, only a few steps up from our cavemen ancestors.

Civility quickly gives way to savagery in God of Carnage

Does that all sound a little high faluting for you? Because it’s not. At all. This is a hysterical play, from the earnest discussion of why hamsters are creepy to an ongoing bit involving a bluetooth headset to some impressive physical slapstick, this is the kind of play that makes you squirm uncomfortably even as tears of laughter roll down your face. While the action takes place entirely in one room on one day, the action never drags. The jokes are sharp and the action is thought-provoking.

The cast has a heavy task on their hands. With a few brief exceptions, all four actors are on stage for the entire 90-minute show. No breaks, no pauses, nowhere to hide. And they perform remarkably well. Tim Grimm is both jocular and menacing as Michael the hamster killer; Constance Macy is hilariously unhinged as Annette; and even Ryan Artzberger, who I’ve roundly criticized in the past for playing too much to the cheap seats, finds his rhythm and stride as career-obsessed Alan. But it’s IRT-newcomer Shannon Holt as Veronica who stole the show. She begins as a crunchy-granola type, all full of concern about Darfur and full of righteous indignation over her son’s attack, but by the end, she’s a delightful drunken mess, engaging in some tricky and impressive physical comedy to uproarious laughter.

Shannon Holt as Veronica Novak steals the show

God of Carnageis the best show the IRT has put on all season. In a line-up of pretty great shows, that’s saying something. It’s funny and thought provoking, beautifully staged and well acted. And if you see a hamster wandering the streets, won’t you call the Novaks and let them know?

Reviewer’s tickets were provided courtesy of the IRT. God of Carnage runs through March 24. Tickets are available at irtlive.com..