God of Carnage at the Guthrie

Brutal comedy: Chris Carlson, Bill McCallum, Tracey Maloney, and Jennifer Blagen

Brutal comedy: Chris Carlson, Bill McCallum, Tracey Maloney, and Jennifer Blagen

Yasmina Reza's God of Carnage takes an everyday situation—a playground fight between two boys—and ramps up the tension and the intensity. We never see the children in question, just a meeting between their parents, who, over the course of a bit more than an hour, manage to strip themselves of the veneer of civilization that humanity has spent millennia building around its collective, savage heart.

Did I mention it's a comedy?

Okay, it's a brutal type of comedy, one far more about the humor of discomfort than anything, but there's no denying that parts of Reza's recent hit can make you howl. That part of the show is well accented in the Guthrie Theater's new production, now running at the McGuire Proscenium Stage. It's built on the fine talents of a quartet of actors and intensified by a clean and straightforward job of directing from John Miller-Stephany. It also manages to feel overlong at 75 minutes—as if there's enough material here for a short, one-act play, not a full-length piece.

The unseen boys who have been fighting are preteens, and each comes with a set of rather unlikeable parents. On one side are Veronica and Michael Novak, whose son was hit with a stick. On the other are Annette and Alan Raleigh, who have agreed to meet with the Novaks at their home to discuss the situation.

What transpires is a long, flowing discussion and argument in which the "sides" are constantly in flux. Much of that comes from the worldviews of the characters. Alan's (Bill McCallum) lack of interest in the proceedings—and possibly his family—are pretty clear from the start, where he is far more interested in solving a crisis via Blackberry than paying attention to the parents' meeting. On the other hand, it takes much longer for Michael's (Chris Carlson) very similar attitude to show, but the businessman (he sells hardware and knows a lot about toilet fixtures) eventually finds himself in similar territory as the other father.

Even too-nervous Annette (Tracey Maloney) slips out of her humanity by the end, though she needs some fingers of rum to help her get to that stage. Only Veronica (Jennifer Blagen) clings to the hope that civility can bring. She wants everyone to get along, is horrified by the men's casual acceptance of "boys will be boys," and believes that the good parts of humankind can overcome our baser instincts. Considering Reza's rather dark worldview, it's not surprising that she would come out as the biggest loser among the characters.

A lot of humor arises out of this darkness, brought to life by the hard work of the cast. With impeccable timing and a willingness to push the characters well beyond the likeable, the quartet makes much of the short evening fly by. There are some lovely gags (including one that may test more sensitive audiences) and a real sense of the music—the rising tension and occasional release—of the piece. Maloney gets the best of this, as her character slowly degrades through the show, going from a prim adult to nervous wreck to a bitter drunk ready to audition for a role in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

The boys—and believe me, they end up acting younger than their sons—are more than willing to head in that direction, and Carlson and McCallum make the most of their highlight-reel moments, from McCallum's one-way phone conversations and massive temper tantrum near the end to Carlson's rising, Basil Fawlty-like anger at not just the situation but his entire life. Blagen rides a quieter line, often serving as the straight woman to the rest of the high jinks, but she gets her moments, from obsessing over her collection of art books to finally doing what everyone who has ever heard a cell phone go off during a performance has dreamed of doing.

The only real hitch in my enjoyment was, oddly enough, the length. It's not that it couldn't work, but that Reza's main point—humans are a bunch of shits—could have been sharpened even more. At a certain point, God of Carnage starts to repeat itself, and even though the brutal comedy is still there, it loses impact with every iteration.