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God of Carnage brings its wrath 

We're all Neanderthal

Comedy is never far away in Yasmina Reza's God of Carnage, where two well-to-do Brooklyn couples get together to have a civilized discussion about a nasty altercation between their sons. The big joke, of course, is that the parents are no more sober, responsible, neat, well-mannered or impervious to taunting and name-calling than their children. In the Charlotte premiere of the Tony Award winner, now at Actor's Theatre through Oct. 13, director Ann Marie Costa aims for maximum comedy mileage.

Costa turns the bodacious Brett Gentile loose in the role of our host, housewares merchandiser Michael Novak, to a zany degree considerably beyond the liberties allowed to James Gandolfini in the Broadway production. Just wait for the tension-breaking barfing episode and you'll see what I mean.

Far from hurting our perspective — or the balance Reza is striving for between comedy and drama — Gentile's shtick may actually help. The tight Hickory Community Theatre production that we saw up in Cornelius last December wasn't as funny, nor were Michael and Veronica quite so out-of-control. As a result, the scales of justice in the assault upon the Novaks' son Henry, beaten by the visitors' son Benjamin with a stick, seemed altogether on the side of the host family.

But a second look at Reza's Carnage, a practice I'd heartily recommend, showed me that the playwright has taken as much care in balancing the morality question as she has in balancing all the delicious maturity questions. I can see more here in favor of Benjamin and the Raleigh family the second time around, feeble though the defense Alan Raleigh offers for his son may be.

Benjamin, you see, was provoked. Henry would not allow Benjamin into his gang, calling him a snitch, so the snitch picked up a stick and knocked out a couple of Henry's teeth. Of course, Benjamin's mother Annette pounces on the nicety that they all wouldn't be here if the angelic Henry hadn't ratted out his assailant. Alan, a corporate attorney no less, is even less apologetic with his defense: Sure his son overreacted, but he's a child. A savage.

So are we all, Reza coos to us inside all the hilarious bad behavior. Granted, the moral ground has undoubtedly shifted beneath our feet since Carnage premiered in its original French version in 2006 — two years before the London premiere and three years before Broadway. Cyber-bullying and webcam pranks have expanded our concept of the damage 11-year-olds might do to one another without weapons — driven home by lurid stories of teen suicides and murderous retaliatory assaults. Today's Veronica, Henry's crusading mother, might not be quite so contemptuous of the idea that Henry ought to be apologizing for his behavior. Not if she truly wishes to maintain the moral high ground.

What I find so profound about Reza the second time around is how deeply she understands and dramatizes the counterargument — through instinct or intellect, it makes no difference. Watch the ebb and flow carefully and you'll see it contains the powerful thrust of her argument. When Veronica shares the flavors of her accomplished baking, or when Michael passes around the booze, conviviality reigns. It's just when they try to discuss or negotiate that tempers flare and tulips fly. Bestiality unites them for brief interludes until intellect, the filigree of adult disputation, rips them apart.

Obscuring the elemental force of Reza's deeper argument is the frank detestability of Alan, the man who delivers the monologue with the comedy's title. Not only is he rudely on his cell phone for a hefty portion of the evening, his urgent calls are coming from a nefarious pharmaceutical company seeking to escape responsibility for knowingly selling lethal drugs. Brian Lafontaine portrays the lawyer as cool under fire, though under extremely stressful circumstances, we can see that he's not unflappable. At the end of the evening, ask yourself whether he has controlled himself better than the righteous Annette.

Or flip that over and ask whether Catherine Smith's volatile Veronica manages to behave badly enough to toss her prosecution of the Raleighs out of court. There are numerous occasions when Veronica seems on the brink of lashing out at someone — Alan, Annette and her boorish husband all inflame her wrath — and Smith's waves of intensity keep us guessing which one it will be.

Allison Lamb Tansor not only impresses with her prodigious vomiting as Annette but with her queasy, nauseated follow-through. Enough anal tendencies peep through Tansor's dyspepsia to qualify Annette for sisterhood with Veronica when the moment is ripe, just as moral laxity eventually bonds the boys. A very handsome set design by Chip Decker completes this compact 83-minute package.

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