**Reza In Rep 2012**
IF YOU GO
What: "God of Carnage" follows two couples through an evening of conflict, drinking and destruction
When: Plays alternate at 8 p.m. through Sunday, Nov. 18. Additional 3 p.m. matinée showings on Sunday, Oct. 21, Oct. 28, Nov. 11 & Nov. 18.
Where: Norris Community Center, 755 Eighth Ave. S., Naples
More: $65 "Marathon Mania" tickets available for Saturday performances on Oct. 27, Nov. 3, Nov. 10 and Nov. 17. See one show at 4 p.m., then another at 8 p.m.
Information: 866-811-4111 or gulfshoreplayhouse.org
On the Web: More theater news at The Stage Door blog
Director Cody Nickell elects for outrageous comedy over subtlety in the Gulfshore Playhouse production of "God of Carnage." Four adults throw civility to the winds and rip into each other like savage beasts. Laugh long, laugh hard - and look into the mirror lest ye too be damned.
Two sets of Brooklyn yuppies meet to settle a playground dispute between their sons. Alan (Brit Whittle) and Annette (Laura Faye Smith) visit Michael (Scott Greer) and Veronica (Brigitte Viellieu-Davis). What starts nicely over coffee and clafouti (a baked French dessert), descends into a brawl, complete with liquor, tears, fisticuffs and accusations galore.
Multiple factors influence this particular "God of Carnage." Notably, the show runs in repertory with "Art;" Greer and Whittle play two of the three characters in that show, with the third, Nickell, now directing them. Playwright Yasmina Reza has a fondness for the name Serge (listen for it); she slips in at least one other sly reference to "Art."
Beyond that, at least for me, Florida Repertory Theatre offered a version of "Carnage" less than nine months ago. While I don't want to compare the two, I've been curious how the shows would stand apart. As it turns out, except for Reza's words, the pair have almost nothing in common. Yet, each offer an exciting, brutal, terrifying thrill ride down the slippery slope of humanity as it stares into the bottomless pit of beastly behavior.
"Carnage" strives to present a vision where adults take off the masks of polite behavior and reveal just how ugly most people really are. We're not nice. We don't really want to buy $40 tulips and serve homemade pastry to strangers in our home. Especially when their kid picked up a stick and smacked ours across the face. No, we want to yell and scream and whack 'em across the face too! Society is what happens when we suppress those urges. "Carnage" is what happens when we don't.
Nickell, while he shares Gulfshore Playhouse founder and artistic director Kristen Coury's sensibilities, brings an entirely different style to the director's chair. The 90-minute journey of "Carnage" can be interpreted anywhere from an exceedingly sharp comedy of manners to a playground free-for-all. Nickell goes straight for the monkey bars - and his cast follows like a pack of charged-up toddlers tussling over a juice box.
His show resembles an insistent sitcom powered by 18 cups of espresso and lashings of holier-than-thou snark. Laugh-out-loud moments fall like disastrous soufflés. Nickell crafts a physical, almost slapstick show that emphasizes just how much the characters dislike each other. Everything - from facial expressions to reaction shots to pillow fights - seems like the NBC Thursdays of yore.
If you accept Nickell's interpretation of "Carnage" as playground farce, it's a home run. Some of his choices bring out moments I had missed, even after reading the play multiple times and seeing it performed twice. The audience absolutely loved it - laughed like the mad hyenas in "The Lion King." I wish it had been just a touch less coarse and broad. The characters don't always feel authentic; for me, the play loses an indefinable something by striving so hard to be funny.
If I had to pin it down, some of Reza's understated intent gets lost in the immediate leap from social graces to savagery. As funny as they are - and Scott Greer making like a gorilla, grabbing in the general area of his privates and yelling "I'm a f****** Neanderthal!" brings the house down - the characters can sometimes feel like caricatures.
In a drive to wring laughs, Nickell almost forcibly kick-starts the on-stage shenanigans. His approach is solid - and he picks moments well. Watching prim, business-suited Annette shudder as the more earthy Annette tries to shovel more of the homemade clafouti onto her earns a laugh. It just feels calculated and a bit rushed. If the characters start as opponents, there's little place else for them to go, except louder, angrier and meaner (which they do).
A brilliant professional cast delivers both Reza's cutting lines and Nickell's darkly comic vision with exquisite perfection. The men might get some of the bigger laugh lines, but the women are far, far funnier.
Brigitte Viellieu-Davis takes do-gooder Veronica to a special place, one reserved for those people who have their carefully constructed, organic produce eating, fair trade coffee drinking, ballet attending worlds shattered by reality. What Viellieu-Davis does so well is to use Veronica's unhappiness as a club to bludgeon everyone around her. Zingers, perfectly timed, fly off her tongue.
The actress must possess a thousand different facial expressions - and she pulls them all out. Husband Michael gets a few dirty looks. Visitors Alan and Annette (whom she quickly labels as fakes) get a few more. A box of cigars gets a look of scorn that would melt entire planets.
Laura Faye Smith turns mousy Annette into a boozy shrew. Watching her blonde Barbie quite literally "puke and rally" makes for interesting viewing. As does the hand job she gives a bottle of rum. Hers is the most difficult, least well-drawn role, yet she makes Annette a fiery, flower-tossing witch with an absolute blade for a tongue. Her snark - whether aimed at her husband, Veronica or poor Michael - is brutal.
The men, who already turned in one performance earlier Saturday during the opening performance of "Art," look to simply be having fun.
Whittle enjoys barking into Alan's cell phone far too much. His self-important lawyer (with a case before the International Criminal Court at The Hague) drips with arrogance. He's every loud, obnoxious person who yelled into a Bluetooth while standing in line at Starbucks and then snatched your drink right out from under you. You'll hate him - even as you love the way he presses every button on every person on stage.
Greer does the best job of humanizing his recalcitrant Michael. Of all the characters, his fares best in Nickell's comedy-induced vision, helped along by a majestic ability to make the funniest faces you'll ever see - or get laughs just by wrinkling his nose. I hesitate to even describe the "Woof-Woof" scene, where Michael and Veronica poke fun at Alan's pet name for Annette; Greer jumps up on the couch on all fours … and it goes swiftly downhill from there.
Alok Wadhwani's set flips from art gallery white to cozy red brick for "God of Carnage." If the style feels authentic to Brooklyn's historic brownstones, it lacks any personality. Where Wadhwani and Jennifer Murray (props) created a stark but visually stunning bubble for "Art," the same philosophy leaves "Carnage" dull. The neutral living room set, with red walls and tawny couch and chair, feels like a blank slate waiting for something to happen.
If that was Nickell's intent, to mirror "Art," and create a simple launchpad, he accomplished his goal. Yet, the space can't help but feel lifeless - which robs "Carnage" of some vigor. Even working on the small stage and within the limitations of repertory, accessories could add charisma and pop. One of costume designer Jennifer Bronstead's best touches might be the excessively floral patterned kitchen gloves Veronica wears in one scene.
"God of Carnage" offers a hilarious and horribly real portrait of just how awful supposedly nice people can behave. But most of us knew that - it is just far more entertaining to watch Laura Faye Smith rip the heads off tulips in a screaming frenzy than deal with the crazies in our own lives. Give "God of Carnage" 90 minutes of your time - you won't regret it.
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