Marin Theatre Co. Fights to the Finish Line

To close its 45th season, Marin Theatre Company has assembled a load of big talent: Producing Director Ryan Rilette, four well-matched Equity actors and a script by Parisian playwright Yasmina Reza, who based this play, “God of Carnage,” on an incident from her son’s teens. It’s a quick (75 minutes) two-handed slap to the audience that builds fast and doesn’t let down until the final minutes.

At the outset, two couples are seated in the Novaks’ apartment, and Veronica Novak opens with, “So this is our statement.” These people are transacting some kind of business, and as the conversation continues – with interruptions and amendments — it’s clear that they are not friends.

The Raleighs’ son Benjamin has fought with young Henry Novak and has broken two of his teeth with a stick. (“Should we say Benjamin was ‘armed’ with the stick, or should we say ‘equipped?’) Bravado was probably involved, but isn’t bravado a type of courage? This is not the type of thing one expects in Cobble Hill Park, which is always so safe, not like Whitman Park.

Alan Raleigh’s cell phone makes the first of many intrusions. Alan’s an attorney whose client, a pharmaceutical company, has discovered an unfortunate side effect from one of its medications just before the shareholders’ annual meeting. Alan’s concerned about insurance coverage in case of litigation.

All agree that Benjamin should apologize to Henry, though Alan chuckles that their son is “a savage.” His wife affirms that Alan has never been “a stroller dad.” Veronica, slipping automatically into her hostess role, offers clafouti and coffee, explaining the secret of combining pears and apples together, then asks if young Benjamin understands that he’s “disfigured” his playmate.

There is talk of a gang; there is talk of a snitch. And there is a genuine gut reaction from Annette Raleigh shortly after her husband gets another phone call and asks for the definition of ataxia.

These four never leave the stage, but outsiders influence the conversation: calls from Alan’s office, calls from Michael Novak’s mother (who might be taking the suspect medication,) and concerns about Nibbles, the missing pet hamster.

Unfortunately, a bottle of rum is brought out. This veers “God of Carnage” into “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” territory, in which the characters drink and bicker and nobody leaves. One final phone call turns the mood and suggests that the carnage is mopping up.

Ryan Rillette has done a brilliant job of moving the players around the stage to indicate their shifting loyalties. Stacy Ross as Veronica Novak performs both the best tantrum and the most tender scene in the play. Remi Sandri shows her husband Michael living out his fantasy of himself as a combination of Spartacus and John Wayne.

Warren David Keith as Alan Raleigh depicts the perfect successful man who’s also a social embarrassment, and Rachel Harker’s Annette gets an audience cheer when she takes charge of her husband’s cell phone.

Meg Neville has costumed the characters in family groups: the Novaks are stylishly casual, the Raleighs more formal. Set designer Nina Ball has provided a comfortable, sleek apartment with one brick wall hung with African masks and two vases of blood-red tulips. All these details are significant.

An audience member leaving the theatre behind us was comparing this play with its film counterpart and said, “The movie lags. This one really moves!”

“God of Carnage” will be at the Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Avenue in Mill Valley, through June 17, every day but Monday. Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays are at 8:00 p.m., Wednesday is at 7:30 p.m. Matinees are Thursday, June 7 at 1:00 p.m., Saturday, June 16 at 2:00 p.m. and every Sunday at 2:00. Sunday evening performances are at 7:00 p.m.