Playwright Yamina Reza believes that once you've melted away the crust of civilization -- with alcohol the preferred solvent -- humanity is just a clutch of greedy, vicious, craven primates. (She must have been at my 40th birthday party.)
God of Carnage, Reza's latest -- in a translation by Christopher Hampton and making its local debut at Pittsburgh Public Theater -- tells of two married couples getting together because their sons attend the same primary school and one has beaten up the other.
The meeting starts well, with all four wearing their NPR-listening liberalism on their sleeves. But it's not too long before the indulgent concern slips away and everyone's revealing the self-interest beneath.
Reza hit the big time with Art, another comedy in which urban sophisticates struggle with their base nature. God of Carnage is a quite funny script -- smart, knowing and as dry as a martini. It may be a skit stretched to play length, but Reza wisely keeps the running time around 70 minutes, and once the dramaturgical machinery gets moving, thanks to the incisive direction of Ted Pappas, those 70 minutes fly by.
Reza, unfortunately, isn't quite as successful when it comes to creating fully realized stage characters; here they hardly rise to the level of caricature. Alan Raleigh is an "angry lawyer," so he barks at everyone and yells into his cell phone a lot. While David Whalen plays the role with the right pitch of hostility, it's a shame he's not given more to do. Deirdre Madigan plays Veronica Novak, the most nuanced of the four, and gets her condescension and barely concealed rage exactly right.
The roughest roles fall to Susan Angelo and Ted Koch; their characters, Annette Raleigh and Michael Novak, are little more than fleeting sketches. Angelo in particular is saddled with having to play fits of both illness and drunkenness to gloss over the incongruous shifts in her personality. But both actors get the job done and are enormous fun to watch.
You won't think about it the second you're out of the theater, but while you're there you'll have a hell of a good time.
God of Carnage continues through June 26. Pittsburgh Public Theater, 621 Penn Ave., Downtown. 412-316-1600 or www.ppt.org