The Napa Playhouse just completed its run of Yasmina Reza’s 2009 play, God of Carnage, and they did very well.

God of Carnage might have been aptly entitled A Delicate Balance, if Edward Albee had not already used that for another play with a similar thematic interest.

Albee’s play uneasily reveals the fragile, delicate balance of human relationships. In Albee’s world, maintaining a modest level of unhappiness requires vigilance, sacrifice, restraint, humility — and sometimes humiliation. Albee’s characters seem to have a greater capacity for suffering than Reza’s, for suffering deeper than the sting of being contradicted or having one’s hypocrisies noted.

God of Carnage also calls our attention to the delicate balance of human relationships, both the intimacies of marriage and the one-off transactions among strangers. But Yasmina Reza takes audiences to another level, using these domestic and casual relationships to ask her audience to consider the delicate balance within human nature between our savagery and our civility.

The play suggests that the veneer of civility is thin indeed, and is all too easily abandoned when our egos are threatened. Four parents who initially defend their children soon enough throw the little darlings to the wolves, metaphorically speaking. The last ditch to be defended is the self.

Most audience members, being human too, might not want to think very hard about this. Americans prefer sitcom assurances of our own superiority to an evening spent touring the abyss with Samuel Becket.

Most Americans want to enjoy other people’s wretchedness, not nurse our own, especially at today’s ticket prices. Political AM radio programs did not build vast audiences by calling for introspection and self-criticism.

Our national preference for entertainment over understanding probably explains much that is wrong with today’s theatre, television, and movies. If we are open to dark observations at all, it is mostly through comedy.

The director of the Napa Playhouse production, June Alane Reif, decided to shape her production of God of Carnage more as comedy than drama. The script easily allows this, as it also allows the darker interpretation of Roman Polanski’s 2011 film adaptation, Carnage.

Roman Polanski ultimately softened his theme by using visuals under the ending titles to assure audiences that everything turned out just fine after all, with civility restored — the hamster alive and healthy, and the two boys back to playing together nicely.  June Alane Reif’s production ends with the playscript’s unsettling lack of clear closure and comforting resolution.

Having decided to emphasize comedy, June Alane Reif directed beautifully, keeping the pace up and assuring purposeful stage movement. She was the casting director, too, and the actors she selected were wonderful at comedy, too: Christine Julian, Nathan Day, Linda Howard, and Zachary Stockton. I hope to see this combination again.

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