Parents Misbehave in ‘Carnage’ at the Unicorn
October 28, 2011
by Paul Donovan
As adults, we like to reassure kids that when they grow up, they will have more freedom, knowledge and confidence in life. And of course, we all know this is a lie. I’m 40 years old, but sometimes I’m shocked to think that I’m considered a grown-up. I don’t have the answers that I imagined I would have by now when I was 11.
This is the basic premise of the new Unicorn show, God of Carnage, a bold and over-the-top exploration of how adults can often be just large kids. The winner of the 2009 Tony Award for Best Play, God of Carnage chronicles a meeting between two sets of parents whose children got into a fight at a local park earlier in the day.
The play, which runs through Nov. 13, takes place entirely in the living room of Michael and Veronica Novak (played by real-life husband and wife Brian Paulette and Cinnamon Schultz), as they are paid a visit by Alan and Annette Raleigh (played by John Rensenhouse and Melinda McCrary) to discuss the proper way to respond to a fight between their sons, which resulted in the Novaks’ son suffering two broken teeth.
The meeting begins with the customary smiles and warmly polite greetings, and then flows quickly into the excruciating awkwardness of discussing uncomfortable subjects with total strangers. As everybody discovers that there is no agreement on how to handle the next steps, things go downhill quickly. After a particularly unappetizing incident happens to Mrs. Raleigh — and once a rum bottle is opened -- all hell breaks loose.
Although the play does seem a little overdone and heavy-handed at times — as if to make extra-sure that the audience gets the irony that adults can act like children — it is an extremely interesting exploration of personal morality and social dynamics. The disparate characters each react according to their own perspectives, and they scrape, cut and bludgeon each other with weapons that are much worse than anything their kids used.
The character of Veronica Novak is the gravitational center of the story. Not only is she the least cynical and world-weary of the bunch, but she is so entrenched in her sense of entitlement that she can’t even conceive of a world in which violence could possibly be anything other than a terrible and temporary aberration in the natural social order. Schultz does a wonderful job of playing Veronica, drawing the other characters into her orbit temporarily and then sending them flying as they prove themselves unable to keep up with her. Schultz shows us Veronica’s progress from slow burn to outright fury as she realizes that not only is her worldview not shared by everyone, but also that it is not strong enough to fix everything.
Real-life husband Brian Paulette plays Mr. Novak, an insensitive brute trying to live in polite society, though it gets harder and harder for him to keep his mask in place. Paulette’s performance is the subtlest, using glancing body language to outline his character’s fundamentally gloomy outlook on life, and his growing resentment of his wife’s righteous naïveté.
Rensenhouse plays the terminally distracted lawyer Alan Raleigh, continuously putting his domestic life on hold to handle the crises of his clients. Rensenhouse does well as the blustery, reluctant father who seems slightly bewildered by the ruckus over a common childhood incident, even though he clearly has no particular love for his son.
McCrary is awesome as Annette Raleigh, the dutiful wife who is acutely aware of her husband’s social blunders. Annette is a relatively practical counterpoint to Veronica’s idealism, and McCrary’s nonverbal expressions provide a richer, clearer view of her emotional progress than we could have gotten from the script alone.
The play is performed on the small Jerome Stage, but through some miracle of set design, the apartment looks as expansive as you would expect from an upper-middle-class couple. The small physical dimensions they had to work with are completely transcended.
God of Carnage is a fast-paced, savagely funny comedy that provides a raucous satire of the well-mannered members of polite society. As I heard one elderly lady say as she left the theater in front of me, “That play was just like real life.”
For tickets to God of Carnage, call 816-531-7529; visit the box office at 3828 Main St., Kansas City, Mo.; or go to www.unicorntheatre.com.