Annette (Vanessa Lock), left, trades barbs with Michael (Andy Brownstein) in Signature Theatre’s “God of Carnage.”
Anyone who has survived grade school knows that the playground can morph into a battleground in the blink of a sullen tween’s eye. But what many adults don’t want to face is that kids often mirror the scrabbling, immature and sometimes downright wicked behavior exhibited by the grown-ups at home. This hard truth propels Yasmina Reza’s bleak comedy “God of Carnage,” at Signature Theatre through June 24.
The setup is simple: Two sets of parents meet to discuss a schoolyard tussle between their sons, in which one boy got some teeth knocked out. What starts as a civil living-room gathering quickly devolves into a verbal fight club that reaches “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” lows relatively quickly.
“It’s a fascinating cat-and-mouse game,” says director Joe Calarco, who insists that, despite the “family feud” premise, “Carnage” is a funny play.
“I think people see themselves in these parents, and they laugh in recognition.”
You’re just as likely to cringe at the nominally sympathetic characters: callous, always-on-the-cellphone exec Alan and his vain wife, Annette (whose son did the hitting), and Michael and Veronica (the other boy’s parents). Not surprisingly, both pairs want something different from the meeting — an apology, a pass on bad behavior — and politeness goes out the expensive Brooklyn co-op window.
“It’s funny — while we were in tech for this play, my own 10-year-old son got hit in the face with a hockey stick,” says actress Vanessa Lock, who plays Annette. “It was an accident, whereas the act in the play was on purpose. I didn’t call a meeting to talk about it, but I did want to know if the other kid apologized.”
No one will budge or see the others’ points of view, and the verbal fisticuffs escalate to cover everything from dead pets to politics. “The alliances in this play change drastically, with couples against couples, then spouses against spouses,” says Calarco.
“In the end, these couples who thought they were such good teams are questioning why they’re even together.”
Still, “Carnage” is full of savage laughs and schadenfreude, as if the audience were eavesdropping on a particularly juicy argument. Just hope the fight doesn’t too closely resemble the ones you have at home.
Plot Point: After their sons’ playground fight ends in injury, two sets of Brooklyn parents meet to discuss what to do about the incident. Though things start off civilly, the evening degenerates into a war of words that leaves none of the quartet the same.
Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington; through June 24, $65-$89; 703-820-9771.