“God of Carnage” Would Wreak Better Havoc with Age-Appropriate Actors

Review of “God of Carnage,” part of the Stelle di Domani series.

It takes a minute to get used to seeing a pair of college students discuss their 11-year old son.

As part of the Piccolo Spoleto Festival, the College of Charleston’s Department of Theatre and Dance presents “God of Carnage,” Jasmina Reza’s dialogue dense 90-minute production. “Carnage” traps two sets of parents in a living room as they deal with their sons’ playground scuffle. Christopher Hampton translated Reza’s tight French into equally tight English, bringing a whole new meaning to “fighting words.” But, all these words put a lot of pressure on the actors.

The cast of "God of Carnage"

The cast of “God of Carnage.”

Margaret Nyland and Peter Spearman play Veronica and Michael Novak, parents of Henry, who gets whacked in the face with a stick. Nyland is a University of Virginia graduate taking classes at the College of Charleston. She’s older than her undergraduate cast mates, which really works to her advantage. She moves and sounds like a harried young mother standing up for her son after a child’s fight. Spearman, as her nebbish husband, nails the hesitant speech of a spouse who is clearly not the dominant one in the marriage. Although only a college junior, Spearman acts old enough. He employs that particular brand of fatherly pride when he learns his son has a little gaggle of boys who follow him around like a gang. Novak’s boy is a ringleader in a way that Novak hasn’t been since before he got married.

College of Charleston senior Diana Biffle and junior Christian Persico play the other married couple, Annette and Alan Raleigh. The Raleighs’ son, Benjamin, hit Henry with a stick because Henry wouldn’t let him join his gang. Biffle and Persico are clearly college actors. They look young and sound young. Benjamin would more likely be their kid brother than their son. It doesn’t help that the Raleighs’ dialogue in “Carnage” naturally calls for an annoyed attachment to Benjamin. “He’s a savage,” Alan declares to explain away his son’s behavior in the park.

Costume designer McKenna DuBose doesn’t help the dilemma when she employs a hackneyed trick: make a young girl look older by suctioning her luscious hair into a dour bun, then add glasses. It’s the same trick used in movies to make a pretty girl look like a dork. Because we’re so used to it, we become less swayed to believe the design. Biffle is left looking like a cute kid toddling around in her mother’s heels. The same goes for Persico who wears a trench coat that swallows him whole. He fishes around in the large pockets of his trousers every time his blackberry rings, reminding us that he is as uncomfortable in these grown men’s pants as he is with bandying about legal advice over the phone. Alan works as a corporate litigator.

What does end up saving “Carnage” is when Nyland, Spearman, Biffle and Persico all work together, talking on top of each other and exhausting their characters at the same time. The whole is definitely greater than the sum of the parts in this production. When Spearman’s Michael breaks out a bottle of perfectly aged rum, a catalyst among college kids as much as full grown adults, the show turns quite nicely.

Alliances shift from husband and wife batting for the same team, to the two husbands playing against the two wives. Of course, Hampton’s translated dialogue dictates this shift, but without the clever chemistry of the core four actors, you wouldn’t have felt the necessary comedy in “God of Carnage.”

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