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The Art of the Argument:

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God of Carnage
Red Barn Studio
Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.;
Sat., 2 p.m.; and Sun., 3 p.m.

LOVE IS A BATTLEFIELD: (l. to r.) Rachel Lewis Hilburn, Mike O’Neil, Jon Stafford and Michelle Gagliano in ‘God of Carnage.’ Photo by Kelly Starbuck

“Marriage and children—the most horrible things God gave us.”

Words of wisdom or of fear? Leaving Red Barn Studio last Saturday afternoon after hearing this in Yasmina Reza’s 2009 award-winning play “God of Carnage,” my theatre-companion, Mandy, who’s contemplating starting a family soon, assessed, “That makes me scared to have children.”

“But it’s not about the children,” I retorted. “Unless, of course, you take into account our own juvenile tendencies as adults.”

The beauty of Red Barn’s latest production comes from watching aggressive words turn to actions and supposed virtues turn to the evil id of immorality. It all combats a well-to-do premise, which combusts by the play’s end. Michael and Veronica Novak (Jon Stafford and Michelle Gagliano) decide to hold an amicable meeting with Alan and Annette Raleigh (Mike O’Neil and Rachel Lewis Hilburn) to discuss their children’s violent playground fight. Over coffee and claflouti, they pursue a non-confrontational heart-to-heart about the Novak’s son missing a few teeth, thanks to a forceful stick swung by the hand of Benjamin Raleigh.

All is well at the beginning: The two married couples get along nicely. Then, Alan takes one of many phone calls about work, showcasing his incessant lack of familial concern; the comfort of the meeting fizzles. Alan’s wife Annette twists in her seat in embarrassment, emphatically apologizing for her husband. Veronica and Michael, at first, smile coyly in forgiveness before becoming increasingly annoyed by Alan’s pomposity and incessant concern only for his client, a pharmaceutical company dealing with a drug-gone-bad. Thereafter, it all starts its downward spiral, from amiable to amplified agitation.

Played by Rachel Lewis Hilburn, Annette’s unspoken sadness radiates through facial expressions. Hilburn interacts with dramatic eyerolls and doe-eyed, dumbfounded looks at first. Her nonspeak is verbose—fully identifiable to any woman who’s dealt with an emotionally unavailable, aggravating man. Yet, in one sentence she manages to wrap her marital frustration in a nice, tidy bow: “It’s deathly—he avoids anything that has to do with house, garden or school.”

I imagine many women will relate to Annette’s plight. I also imagine Lewis’ version to be the dead-on melodrama of a woman tied up in knots over a failing marriage and unruly child (“savage” as he’s to be called). Lewis clutches her woozy stomach, evoking pain felt by the audience. And in one fell swoop, she vomits live, propelling the show from “nice and tidy” into fiery liveliness.

The philosophical diatribes spouted from these couples find weight in the words of Mike O’Neil, who questions anyone claiming to be culturally or scrupulously righteous. “Sometimes it’s not good to hold yourself to morality,” he tells Veronica, a writer who specializes in Darfur and African culture, and whose pretentious attitude could turn anyone 10 shades of hell. O’Neil is a lawyer who speaks lawyer: condescending and point-blank—no fluff. He says what he means when he means it regardless of who’s around. He may be the most likeable character in the play only because he isn’t forgiving of being an ass; he has integrity for not hiding behind smoke and mirrors, or pomp and circumstance. While his character isn’t exactly admirable, it’s at least honest.

Gagliano as Veronica goes berserk for the audience. She steals the show with her “moderate,” albeit passive-aggressive, behavior. She’s the caring mom, the judgemental wife, the naive caretaker and the idealist in denial of her true self. It’s impossible not to see her explosion coming a mile away after her first words are spoken: “Oh, you don’t prefer we say ‘armed’?” she tempermentally asks the Raleighs. “Your son did come ‘armed’ to the playground. How about ‘equipped’ or ‘furnished’?” She tries to be civil, but her boiling blood is palpable. When she does explode, it’s a fete in acting—I expected Gagliano’s head to turn on its axis.

Veronica’s husband, Michael, played by Jon Stafford, is a bumbling talker. Loquacious to the point of no return, he could be any blue-collar worker hiding behind a culturally refined woman, where he keeps fine rum and cigars on tap to indulge his only allowed vices. He exists best as he can amassed in artless triviality (discussions about commodes make him light up)—until he admits to being nothing more than a neanderthal. He proudly assesses his bigotry and hidden political stances in a feud with Veronica that strips all facades of their cozy, just-so Brooklyn Heights lives.

Stafford commands so much with a simple hand motion or even an enlightened smile zapping his eyes. He knows how to take over a strong cast with overtone and grace. Though he throws around the very non-PC phrase “coon” when speaking of his wife’s subject matter, somehow, he’s the only one in the cast I would want to have a drink with.

The players in “God of Carnage” are exhausting—as they should be. They each bring high anticipation throughout 70-some minutes of intense altercations. Viewers won’t know whether they want it to end, mainly because so many funny moments prevail, insult after insult. There are “Eureka” insights of predictability, too, when the “team mentality”sets in, as the women and men side with their own genders before switching back to their husband-and-wife cocoons. It’s like watching a vortex of emotions unfolding, retreating and then powerfully disentangling again.

It’s enough over-action to make one reach for a bottle of aspirin and gin before contemplating whether the child’s play of war ever really leaves us. Adults can act out far more immaturely than any child, simply because we know the venom and repercussive nature that spews from negative speech and wild motion more wholly than any 9-year-old. While kids have cartoons and toys to gauge their barometer of happiness, adults have life experience and fully developed thought processes to interpret and read. The only resemblance is both have animation and lots of color.

“That was draining,” Mandy said as we packed in the car toward a well-needed glass of wine.

“Yea, but it’s fascinating to actually see how people argue.”

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