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THEATER REVIEW: “God Of Carnage” is "wondrous to watch" | VIDEO

What happens when you put sophisticated and carefully emotionally calibrated people into a verbal pressure cooker and turn up the heat?

Playwright Yasmina Reza gives us one answer in her Tony-winning “God Of Carnage,” in which two couples meet to discuss their 11-year-old sons’ playground altercation. Directed by Richard Seer, “God Of Carnage” plays through Sept. 2 at the Old Globe’s Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre.

It seems that Benjamin, son of Alan (T. Ryder Smith) and Annette Raleigh (Caitlin Muelder), picked up a stick and hit Henry, son of Michael (Lucas Caleb Rooney) and Veronica Novak (Erika Rolfsrud), causing dental problems of as-yet undetermined seriousness.

A supremely commonplace issue, to be sure, and but for the financial issues, perhaps best left to the boys to settle.

But academic Veronica and businessman Michael, parents of the victim, host the meeting in their nicely appointed home in Brooklyn’s Cable Hill Park. On the glass-topped coffee table are a large vase of red tulips and several books about African civilization – Veronica’s specialty.

Alan, an attorney and Annette, a money manager, are parents of the offending Benjamin.

It starts out quite a civilized conversation, Michael offering and Veronica supplying coffee and clafouti, Alan admitting that Benjamin is “a savage” and Annette agreeing that Benjamin should apologize.

But the longer they talk, the more they embroil themselves in issues like blame and parenting, and soon they begin to expose their own weaknesses. Alliances are formed and abandoned, and they find their feigned civility curdling and individual psyches being stripped down to their “neanderthal” cores as rum flows and inhibitions drop.

The self-important Veronica, with the pretentious, self-important air of someone with what Michael calls an “evolved consciousness,” has the farthest to fall, and Rolfsrud’s Veronica melts down spectacularly.

Rooney’s Michael, a wholesaler in household goods (frying pans and bathroom fixtures), places less importance on the kids’ brawl than his wife. He’s a teddy bear of a guy, but it doesn’t take long before he too joins in the verbal battle, eventually surrendering to his inner street thug.

Meanwhile the wiry Alan, who seems to have a cell phone permanently attached to his ear, paces the room fielding one call after another (he’s trying to control the PR fallout for a pharma that has failed to advise of possibly life-threatening side effects of a drug).

Muelder’s Annette starts out as the peacemaker, but loses her cool in direct proportion to the number of phone calls Alan takes, her tongue becoming more caustic, her actions increasingly desperate as the voice rises and civility crumbles.

Oddly enough, it is Smith’s Alan – who seems the farthest removed from the issue at hand – who analyzes the situation correctly: “I believe in the god of carnage. He has ruled, uninterruptedly, since the dawn of time.”

Three of these fine actors (Muelder, Rolfsrud and Rooney) are alumni of the Old Globe/University of San Diego Graduate Theatre Program. Seer has been director of that program since 1993.

Christopher Hampton’s brilliant translation makes this version distinctly American, and director Richard Seer joins in by playing up the comedy and playing down the script’s inherently absurdist elements. These characters are not, like Beckett’s, trapped in a hostile and meaningless universe as much as stuck in a cage of their own making and reverting to the spoiled children beneath the suave painted-on exteriors.

Seer has staged this in the round at the Old Globe’s Harvey and Sheryl White Theatre. The more confined space serves the claustrophobic feel of the script well, but Seer has used it to create more movement than the plot requires. Alan, for example, is constantly walking around while on the phone. Late in the play he and even gets involved in a game of “catch me” with Annette, which seems unlikely at best.

But these are minor cavils. “God Of Carnage” is an intricately choreographed dance of incivility in which all involved give in to their baser (and perhaps more real) selves. It is wondrous fun to watch.

The details

“God Of Carnage” plays through Sept. 2 at The Old Globe’s Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre, 1363 Old Globe Way in Balboa Park.

Tuesday and Wednesday at 7 pm; Thursday and Friday at 8 pm; Saturday at 2 and 8 pm; Sunday at 2 and 7 pm.

For tickets, call 619-234-5623 or visit HERE.