Parents just don't understand.
You wouldn't expect a play called God of Carnage to end well, even if its initial pretense -- two groups of parents meeting to discuss their sons' schoolyard fight -- seems benign at the outset.
But the "carnage" at Merrimack Repertory Theatre, where the Yasmina Reza work kicked off the 2013-14 season Sunday night, somehow exceeded the destructive promise of its title.
MRT's Carnage is a spectacular unraveling of politeness and decency, featuring explosive performances from all four main characters from a deceptively simple story that occurs all because one kid knocked another kid's teeth out with a stick.
The action starts a few days after that bluntly described event, with the two sets of parents discussing the use of the word "armed" in a possible statement regarding the pre-pubescent assailant. The hilarious irony of the entire 80-minute play is apparent from the first few seconds: The fact that these parents think they can apply real-world morality to a playground fight makes them look even more childish in the process, no matter how many big words they use.
Chief offender is the attacked child's mother Veronica (Judith Lightfoot Clarke), owner of many leather-bound books and a heightened vocabulary (Clarke's great at making her character's pretentiousness sound authentic, instead of affected). She an idealist (she's writing a
They seem more reasonable than the attacker's parents, Annette (Laura Latreille) and Alan (Joseph Adams). Neither is quite ready to admit their son's complete culpability, and Alan, a high-powered lawyer, annoys everyone (including his wife) by taking calls on his BlackBerry every five seconds.
Their conversation hits every emotion, devolving (or evolving, depending on your outlook) from pleasantries to teary, drunken arguments. Alliances shift constantly, which gives each player a complex time to shine.
Caffrey slowly unmasks Michael's brutishness, while Latreille does so similarly with Annette. Adams conveys Alan's uninterested attitude brilliantly, but the best thing about his character is how his practicality (and occupation) informs his knowledge of the situation. He knows negotiations are a dirty business.
He just didn't think this one would be so messy.
God of Carnage runs until Oct. 13. Tickets start at $20. For information, visit mrt.org or call 978-654-4678.
Follow Pete McQuaid on Twitter @sweetestpete.