FORT WORTH -- A playground spat drives the action of Circle Theatre's excellent production of God of Carnage, which opened Saturday.
But, in this sharp-edged comedy, it is the adults who act like children.
This 2006 play by French playwright Yasmina Reza (best known for Art) deals with two couples coping with a crisis: the child of Alan (Brad Stephens) and Annette (Leah Layman) has struck the child of Michael (Mark Fickert) and Veronica (Lisa Fairchild) with a stick resulting in the loss of a couple of teeth. The couples meet in Michael and Veronica's fashionable apartment to determine the next step.
What ensues is an extended sparing match where many verbal blows are thrown and some are landed. But there is nearly always a counterpunch, as the alliances among the parties shift constantly. The animosity between the couples, which is at a high level from the outset, seems to abate, only to surge back again. The attitudes of the characters ebb and flow like tides, running from forced civility to rum-fueled existentialism.
This production has absolutely everything going for it: fine script, great acting and outstanding direction.
It would be impossible to single out any one performance from the rest in this ensemble piece. Stephens and Layman are spot on, playing the sort of self-absorbed and materialistic people we used to call yuppies. The former is high-flying lawyer who spends as much time on his cell phone trying to put a positive spin on a repugnant prescription drug scandal as he does dealing with the other characters. The latter is his ice-cold wife, who manages to subtly and quietly ratchet up the level of confrontation at every turn. She is as severe as her tightly pulled-back hairdo.
Fairchild's character has the most range in the cast and she handles every twist adroitly. Fickert is, once again, brilliant. His character is the odd man out in this effete assemblage and he renders him perfectly, as he seems to do with all his roles. He is such a good actor, in fact, that he can even belch on cue. Robin Armstrong's direction is inspired. She makes sure her outstanding players bring all their talents to bear on their characters, and artfully moves them about the stage in a way that keeps things in this single-set, one-act play from becoming stagnant. And better still, she uses those blocking decisions to underscore character relationships. Watching her work here is like seeing a savvy conductor bringing out the most in a performance of a difficult symphony.
Another contribution by Armstrong is her costuming, which is so logical and natural that it might slip right by you. But the choices she makes about attire reveal volumes about the characters while also being highly flattering to them.
On the whole, God of Carnage is a sort of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? for the 21st century. This show has as many surprises and lays bare as many souls as that Albee classic, but it is a lot funnier. The only big difference is that, in this play, the kids actually exist.