The Tony Award-winning play "God of Carnage" (by Yasmina Reza, translated from the French by Christopher Hampton), Palo Alto Players' latest offering, bills itself as a comedy of manners "without the manners." It's an apt description for this humorous poke at the artifice of upper-middle-class social graces and modern family life.
Corporate lawyer/workaholic Alan Raleigh (Scott Solomon) and his seemingly mild-mannered second wife, "wealth manager" Annette (Melissa O'Keefe), are the parents of 11-year-old Benjamin, who broke two of peer Henry Novak's teeth by bashing him with a stick during an altercation. Henry's parents, cultured writer Veronica and blustery wholesale businessman Michael (Betty Kruse Craig and Todd Wright), invite the Raleighs to their home to discuss the incident and propose how to deal with their sons.
At first, the visit is awkward but reasonably genial, with the couples engaging in small talk and highbrow refreshments, the very model of mature civility in the face of childhood savagery. However, the conversation quickly becomes strained, then heated, and the adults increasingly unhinged and histrionic, as all pretenses of politeness are quickly stripped away.
The irritating -- yet relatable -- characters are well written and well portrayed across the board, each with distinct quirks and recognizable personality types. Alan is unapologetic about his preference for his job (and beloved mobile phone) to the demands of fatherhood, marriage and social niceties. Wife Annette, trying hard to keep up appearances, is initially contrite and embarrassed by her son's act of violence but can maintain her conciliatory facade for only so long.
Meanwhile, Veronica, the strongest personality on stage, carefully cultivates her sanctimonious, artistic and high-minded image but loses her cool when challenged. She's the parent most upset by the incident between the children, seeing her injured son as a victim of brutality, and is not pleased when it's suggested he may bear some responsibility for the situation as well.
Michael, perhaps the oddest of the four, at first appears jovial and easygoing but quickly reveals a surprising dark side, complete with neuroses, depression and a cruel streak.
As the play goes on, the foursome's alliances shift, often pitting Raleighs against Novaks but morphing into a battle of the sexes as strains in both marriages come to light. The wordy, but sharp and clever, script provides plenty of laughs at everyone's expense. It also forces viewers to consider how they'd react if their own children were involved in such a conflict. Can anyone really hope to remain calm and civil for long when their loved ones and ways of living are under (be it physical or social) attack?
This production places the action in Palo Alto, a very fitting choice. Audiences will delight in hearing references to Rinconada and Mitchell parks, Hoover Tower and other local landmarks, and Palo Alto's reputation for a population of educated and affluent overachievers makes it the perfect setting from which these characters could arise.
With only four actors and the entire play taking place in one room/set of costumes, "God of Carnage" would seem a simple show to helm and outfit, but kudos are due to director Jeanie K. Smith (a Weekly theater critic) for keeping the momentum going with creative blocking; set designer Kuo-Hao Lo for creating a believable representation of a well-to-do, tasteful modern couple's living room; and costume designer Shannon Maxham.
I especially enjoyed Maxham's choices for Annette and Veronica. Annette's neatly tailored, figure-hugging business look contrasts perfectly with Veronica's Bohemian-yet-expensive upscale Earth-mother style. But each sport similar red and purple hues, even down to their similar hair colors.
The show, with its acceleration from simmering, subtle animosity to full-blown screwball hysterics (including gross-out humor), clocks in at under 90 minutes with no intermission. Though brief, the play, like the visiting Raleighs, still outlasts its welcome a bit by the end, as the plot doesn't really lead anywhere conclusive and the characters are well established by then.
Nonetheless, "God of Carnage" is an overall success and should give Palo Alto audiences a pleasurable dose of laughter and schadenfreude as they peek into the dysfunctional lives of families who could easily be their friends, neighbors or even -- God forbid -- themselves.
Info: "God of Carnage" is at the Lucie Stern Theatre at 1305 Middlefield Road in Palo Alto through Nov. 17, Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. Tickets are $23-$45. Go to paplayers.org or call 650-329-0891.