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If you love eavesdropping on other people's arguments, then you'll adore Yasmina Reza's "God of Carnage."
And if you love small ensemble acting with rhythm and dialogue that turns on a dime, you'll love Salt Lake Acting Company's Utah premiere of this work, which has proved something of an international sensation in the drama world ever since it was translated from the French and onto the English-speaking stage in 2008. Even if it tends toward bludgeoning you with its central theme, it remains entertaining throughout.
The line between savagery and civilization, the necessity of facades, and the mystery of breaking points where honesty finally rears its ugly head all converge inside an upper-class living room as two sets of parents sort through the aftermath of a violent altercation between their 11-year-old sons.
Michael and Veronica, played by Zach Phifer and Nell Gwynn, are the well-meaning, reasonable parents of Henry, who is two teeth short after hit by a stick wielded by Benjamin. The assailant's parents, Alan and Annette, played by Darrin Dorman and Christy Summerhays, accept the facts of their son's behavior, even as they try to distance Benjamin from responsibility.
"Fortunately, there is still such a thing as the art of co-existence, isn't there?" says Veronica.
But as the couples make nice over slices of clafouti, coffee and small talk, the play gathers velocity as emotions morph and seep through small cracks. Egging it along is a side-show, and parallel plot, of cellphone calls to Alan, who must also distance a pharmaceutical client from responsibility after reports of side effects from its latest product.
Dorman pulls his role off with aplomb in a condescending, oil-slick performance, proving that real acting is possible even while talking into a cellphone.
The remaining cast delivers as well, making every pause ache with awkwardness, and on through dialogue that veers from tart humor to sour, droll cynicism.
When "God of Carnage" at last crashes onto its intended shore, much like a rock band that opens with a treacly power ballad before crashing into the drum set and lancing guitars through amplifiers, it's a sight to behold.
"Morality decrees we should control our impulses, but sometimes it's good not to control them," offers Alan, in a line that sums up but one of the play's overt themes. "You don't want to be singing Ave Maria when you're fing."
If "God of Carnage" wasn't so much fun to watch, and so full of surprises, it would risk coming across as an anthropologist's doctoral dissertation on stage or, worse, homework. But SLAC's production, directed by John Caywood, thrills in turning a quartet of adults into the children they, and most likely ourselves, have always remained deep down inside.
The play's subtle, even gentle, conclusion ultimately sells us on the need for human facades it temporarily attacks. And it's part of Reza's genius as a playwright that she does this, again, through a cellphone and with the children somewhere offstage.
A mandatory play in a memorable production, "God of Carnage" is that rare occurrence, a play that validates the savagery of unpent honesty and nobility of repressed emotion, even as it thrills us to the sight of both.
Salt Lake Acting Company presents Yasmina Reza's "God of Carnage"
When • Through Nov. 6; Wednesdays-Saturdays, 7:30 p.m.; Sundays, 1 p.m. and 6 p.m.
Where • Salt Lake Acting Company, 168 W. 500 North, Salt Lake City
Info • $15-$41. Call 801-363-7522 or visit http://www.saltlakeactingcompany.org for more information.
Bottom line • An uproarious yet serious play about the limits of civilized behavior, fine-tuned by a SLAC acting quartet. One hour and 25 minutes with no intermission.