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Exploring savagery beneath civilized veneer

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The French playwright Yasmina Reza was returning from school with her son in 2005 when she ran into the mother of his classmate who had suffered a broken tooth in a fight on the playground.

The woman was particularly annoyed that the parents of her son's attacker had not even called to apologize. The two-time Tony Award winner was sympathetic but immediately felt the light bulb of an idea go on for a play about two sets of concerned parents meeting to discuss an altercation between their young sons.

It took her only three months to bang out Le Dieu du Carnage, which debuted in Zurich before Reza directed the Paris opening in early 2008. The satirical comedy became God of Carnage when it was translated by her frequent collaborator Christopher Hampton for the 2008 English-language première in London, and simply Carnage for the 2011 film version directed by Roman Polanski.

Reza, a 52-year-old intellectual whose works include Art and Life x 3, has developed a stellar reputation for dispensing witty one-act stage sitcoms that dissect modern urban manners and preoccupations by laying bare the falseness of societal nicety and the savagery that lies underneath. God of Carnage, which opens tonight at the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre, charts the course of a supposedly civilized get-together, which soon degenerates into an evening of mutually enmity and name-calling.

Vancouver-based actor John Cassini portrays high-powered attorney Alan Raleigh. With his wife Annette, he visits the tasteful New York apartment of Michael and Veronica Novak, whose 11-year-old boy has been smacked with a stick, to discuss the incident over cobbler and coffee.

"The play spoke true to me," says Cassini, who will be familiar to fans of the lamentably cancelled Vancouver-based TV crime drama Intelligence.

The father of two recalls a bully situation involving his Grade 1 son that climaxed with a conference with the perpetrator's parents.

"It was touch and go; I got my back up a little bit because it was my son getting bullied," recalls Toronto-born and -raised Cassini, who is making his first visit to Winnipeg. "There is nothing more personal than kids. The rules disappear as self-interest takes over. We see sides of ourselves we don't show every day."

Director Miles Potter says Reza involved children because society allows parents to get away with anything in defence of their kids. Self-interest always trumps community good.

"There is an inherent lack of empathy in our society and we are not encouraged in Western society to make ourselves available to developing empathy," says Potter, who is helming his 18th play for RMTC. "We are encouraged to look out for ourselves and family. And I think that whole trap of family values is a kind of code for 'us against them.'"

Cassini's Alan doesn't want to be at the parley and repeatedly interrupts the proceedings to take cellphone calls from a client in crisis over the reliability of a controversial prescription drug.

"He's a realist who believes that it is better to show your real self than carry on a faßade," says Cassini, who was nominated for a Gemini for his work as the strip-club owner Ronnie Delmonico in Intelligence. "When push comes to shove he'll defend his son at all costs."

Reza's plays typically seesaw between tragedy and comedy. "They are funny tragedy," she has been quoted as saying, "but they are tragedy." She is often puzzled that Americans find them so funny.

"I think you can do both," says Potter, husband of leading lady of the Canadian stage, Seana McKenna. "It's funny. If you direct it just as a comedy, you'd laugh but leave asking, 'What the hell that was about?' I think you can have a fantastic time and walk out hoping that, 'I'm not those people, I don't want to be those people.'"

kevin.prokosh@freepress.mb.ca

Le Dieu du Carnage

Written by Yasmina Reza (Art, Life x 3)

Premiered in Zurich in 2006

English translation opened in London in 2008

Won Olivier Award for Best New Play

Americanized version opened in New York in 2009

Won Tony Award for Best Play

2011 film version, Carnage, stars Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz and John C. Reilly

Worldwide movie box office revenue: $25 million ($2.5 million in North America)

Theatre preview

God of Carnage

Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre

Opens tonight, to April 7

Tickets: $28.35-$73.50 at 942-6537 or www.mtc.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 15, 2012 D3

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