We are having such a good time watching the bile fly, the repressed recriminations rise and the unvarnished brickbats sting that we can be lulled into enjoying Yasmina Reza's "God of Carnage" as a high-toned sitcom. Indeed, in venues less polite than the Guthrie's proscenium theater, we might hear the catcalls ("You go, girl!") or the swelling assent as a juicy insult lands ("Woooooooooh!").
Ah, but we are in the THEE-ah-tah, and perhaps our society's assumed gentility is the mark for Reza's stiletto.
"Morality decrees we should control our impulses," says Alan, a suave legal shark and one of the combatants. "But sometimes it's good not to control them."
Really? Where would we be without centuries of carefully crafted religion, law, ethics and manners to hide behind?
"I'm a Neanderthal," shouts Michael, Alan's opposite, and we wonder whether he might be the most honest character in this parlor farce.
"Carnage," a Tony winner by the French playwright who gave us "Art," uses this setup: Alan (Bill McCallum) and Annette (Tracey Maloney) have been asked to the Brooklyn home of Michael (Chris Carlson) and Veronica (Jennifer Blagen). At issue is a playground scuffle in which Alan and Annette's son whacked Veronica and Michael's boy with a stick. Civil diplomacy reigns until Annette vomits on Veronica's precious art books. Funny how a little thing like that unleashes the animal in you.
Blagen's Veronica wears the slightly smarmy veneer of a social crusader. She's contributed to a book on Darfur and pronounces that she is "steeped in Africa." Carlson tries to control Michael's impulses but finally lets fly that he is precisely the kind of thug that his wife detests.
McCallum has the sharp lawyer's edge tuned to perfect pitch -- constantly stepping away for cell phone conversations about a legal case threatening to spin out of control. Maloney's Annette is a domesticated pet -- slightly cowed and eagerly trying to please.
The Guthrie's production, directed by John Miller-Stephany, finds its stride once these types loosen their collars and start to speak frankly. Women team up against men, then the spouses defend one another and finally it's open season.
Certainly, the joy of "God of Carnage" lies in watching "folks like us" savage each other for 90 minutes. Reza's strong suit is an ear for dialogue, yet don't discount her ideas. Like a dagger, their impact may not occur until we notice much later the blood flowing from our ribs.