Rep’s ‘God of Carnage’ Has Plenty Of It

Affluent couples arguing about their kids yields heated drama, but production more stagy than subtle.

By - Apr 24th, 2023 04:37 pm
Milwaukee Repertory Theater presents God of Carnage in the Quadracci Powerhouse April 18 – May 14, 2023. Pictured: Heidi Armbruster, Adam Poss, Elan Zafir and Makha Mthembu. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

Milwaukee Repertory Theater presents God of Carnage in the Quadracci Powerhouse April 18 – May 14, 2023. Pictured: Heidi Armbruster, Adam Poss, Elan Zafir and Makha Mthembu. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

There is a great idea driving this play, though it’s an all-too recognizable meeting of affluent parents whose 11-year-old boys got into a fight which might cost one a tooth. The 90-minute consequence of that civilized meeting gone horribly wrong closes out the Milwaukee Rep’s mainstage Quadracci season through May 14 in a production where four well-trained actors show too much of their training in an effort to lead the audience to laughs and self-awareness in God of Carnage.

As American suburbia as the subject may sound – particularly in our current political climate – the themes of parents descending into childishness are clearly universal and the play neatly includes references to a troubled world and conflicting parenting philosophies. Indeed, it is as much about the battle of the sexes as it is about permissive vs authoritarian parenting, the women outraged at the kid’s fight while the men see it as a usual adolescent ritual. Such conflicts should make the event a more natural grabber than it turns out to be.

And it has been a grabber in other turns. French playwright Yasmina Reza won a Tony in 2018 with this translation by playwright Christopher Hampton. She is an incisive chronicler of modern foibles.

There is a sumptuous living room extending past see-through shelves to a kitchen area, all lined with modern art and engaging childlike touches by scenic designer Mariana Sanchez. Patrons are greeted with an impish child-tinged sound design by Eric Backus, so technically the production is in detail-conscious hands, which helps a lot of the stage movement in vomiting, drinking and trying to restore damaged prize possessions.

American theater is comfortable with the drinking. European theater seems more comfortable with the hurling as a way to bring down to earth the well-dressed well-to-do. And a lot of character points can be made in how the mess is cleaned up.

The opening night audience seemed more than ready for the unfolding verbal mayhem. Maybe that’s why director Ryan Quinn and his cast start off too high in mannerisms and then almost double-down on mannered looks and freezes when the real fury flies, which is strange since so many of the character insights could be subtler even in the broad context of the exposition.

As the macho workaholic constantly on his cell phone – though we never believe there is anyone real being abused on the other end – Elan Zafir gets off some great swagger as the “I don’t care” father who often speaks the hard truth. A little too bright and clownish in her stage maneuvers is Heidi Armbruster as the mother who called this meeting and really wants the other couple to admit wrongdoing. Of course, she loses control early.

The actress did better in her previous Rep work, as did Adam Poss as the husband who starts out as conciliatory and drinks his way into something darker. Makha Mthembu as the wife who starts subservient and snaps into guerilla mode approaches the part with looks and movement more natural in classical theater – a style choice director Quinn seemed to tolerate throughout.

The characters’ best moments should have sneaked up on us. One constant giveaway is the actors striking poses as they gear up for the next round of insults. Their reactions feel mechanical.

Well-crafted the production may look, but this play deserves more real humor and thought to live up to its potential.

God of Carnage Gallery

Dominique Paul Noth served for decades as film and drama critic, later senior editor for features at the Milwaukee Journal. You’ll find his blogs here and here.

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