How thin is the veneer of civilization? Pretty skimpy if we believe “God of Carnage,” now running at the intimate Citadel Theatre in Lake Forest.
Michael and Veronica have invited Alan and Annette to their Brooklyn apartment to discuss a touchy subject. Their 11-year-old son was hit in the face with a stick by the 11-year-old son of Alan and Annette, resulting in the loss of one tooth and damage to another. In the script, what begins as an awkward but seemingly polite exchange progresses to mayhem, with arguments, insults, accusations and one nasty upset stomach, leaving civilized behavior in tatters.
This production, directed by Wayne Mell, takes it a step further. He turns the parents into children themselves. They pout, they stamp their feet and one even begins to suck her thumb. The boys face off and the girls bond against them.
These are grown-up children, however. After copious cups of coffee, the rum starts flowing and soon each couple is engaging in very-married verbal combat. By the end of this fast-paced 90-minute show, get ready for some politically incorrect humor and plenty of four-letter words.
Still, this won a 2009 Tony Award for Best Play and it has a very biting script. To their credit the Citadel cast gives it an over-the-top performance.
The injured child’s parents Michael and Veronica are played by Michael Stock, in his Citadel debut, and Susan Steinmeyer, who has appeared in several shows, including “Lend Me a Tenor” last season. His character has his own business, selling household items and plumbing equipment. She is worried about Africa and is writing a book on Darfur.
Alan and Annette are played by Martin J. Hughes, new to Citadel, and Ellen Cribbs, who last season gave a memorable performance as the blind Suzy in “Wait Until Dark.” Alan is a lawyer; Annette’s profession is unclear.
Stock’s performance as the injured child’s father comes perilously close to blue-collar caricature, but he is funny. Steinmeyer, the hostess, is strung as tight as a tennis racket. She struggles to keep her hostility under control, until she snaps and dives, face down, onto the vivid yellow sofa that dominates her living room. It is a feat worthy of applause.
Hughes is the cell-phone addict, a lawyer trying to devise tactics to protect the reputation of a pharmaceutical company whose product has devastating side effects. His phone’s musical ring constantly interrupts every attempt at conversation, until in a burst of alcohol-induced courage, his wife takes matters into her own hands.
Cribbs’s character initially seems humiliated by the situation her son has caused. But as the night goes on, the actress finds her voice and eventually rivals Mozart’s Queen of the Night in maternal fury.
The highly charged script of “God of Carnage” is almost cast-proof, but the Lake Forest cast proves that individual talent and edgy direction can enhance and enliven even the finest material. The play culminates in nihilism, with Michael speaking the last words, “What do we know?”
Citadel’s “God of Carnage” runs through March 10. Show times at 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and 3 p.m. Sundays, with matinees at 1 p.m. Feb. 20 and March 6. West campus of Lake Forest High School, 300 S. Waukegan Road, Lake Forest. Visit their website or call 847-735-8554 for tickets.