New Ground Theatre's God of Carnage is one of the funniest shows, if not the funniest, I've seen on a Quad Cities stage so far this year. Not only is the script by playwright Yasmina Reza sharp, surprising, and witty, but director Derek Bertelsen's handling of the pacing and his cast's character choices had me laughing embarrassingly loudly at Thursday's performance. Even two days later, I find myself mentally inserting quotable dialogue from the play into conversations (though I'd rather not quote any of it here, as most of the best lines involve the "F" word).
The play's premise is simple. Two couples meet to discuss an altercation between their sons after one boy hits the other with a stick, knocking out two of his teeth. That plot point serves as the catalyst to what becomes a study of the four people involved in the discussion, exploring who they are as marriage partners and as individuals. Through the course of their evening together, the polite, carefully maintained masks they wear with each other at the show's beginning begin to crack, revealing their truer, uglier natures. And while that may sound altogether too serious, it's actually hilarious to watch these people descend into hysterics and chaos, both psychologically and physically.
As the parents pressing for the meeting, Jackie Madunic and Jason Platt have the good fortune to portray the play's most dramatically varied characters, Veronica and Michael. One thing that's especially fascinating about their performances is that each makes use of a laugh to shape character. As the mother forcing opinions of her own, "superior" parenting style on her guests, Madunic often laughs with a pointed, forced chuckle; as her fairly submissive husband, Platt uses an awkward, similarly forced laugh of his own. Yet these seemingly unimportant sounds are actually brilliant vocal choices on the parts of Madunic and Platt, and that's hardly where their brilliance ends.
It was fascinating to watch each actor closely when they weren't speaking, as their body language often spoke as loudly as their voices. From Madunic's tapping of her pen in frustration with her husband to the thoughtful, faraway distance on Platt's face, these two actors have obviously put a lot of work into shaping their characters, and their efforts pay off through portrayals that seem unforced and effortless. And to see their carefully calculated man and wife descend into frenetic, uncivil, beastly people is wonderfully entertaining to behold; God of Carnage features perhaps the best work I've seen from these two consistently impressive actors.
The play's other two performers, Melissa Anderson Clark and Jonathan Grafft, are no less notable, although their Annette and Alan are less neurotic than Veronica and Michael, and the roles don't require them to emote as grandly as Madunic and Platt. Still, Grafft impressively suggests Michael's efforts to maintain control of his annoyance and anger through the course of the show, using vocal inflection and physical stance to alter his characterization from the "social Michael" speaking with the others to the "business Michael" handling a client on his often interruptive cell phone. Clark, meanwhile, shines brightest when her Annette has imbibed a bit too much, going from a polite, obliging mother to a strong-willed, loose-limbed, over-dramatic, and somewhat obscene individual.
Clark also has the honor of performing an act not many actors can say they've done on stage: puking. Anyone familiar with Reza's script knows that projectile vomiting is an important part of its staging, and the effect, here, is not at all disappointing, with Bertelsen rigging an effective, vomit-spewing machine of some sort that delivers a realistic expulsion of Veronica's stomach contents. The contraption is so well hidden, I couldn't see the moment coming until Clark was actually throwing up all over the floor and coffee table. And even as she was vomiting, I couldn't determine from where the fake puke originated - it's that well executed, as is the entire show. From its pacing to its characterizations to its vomit, I can't think of one thing I'd change about New Ground's God of Carnage. In fact, it's one of the rare shows I've seen that I want to see again. And, perhaps, again after that.
For tickets and information, call (563)326-7529 or visit NewGroundTheatre.org.