Kyle Fabel doesn’t have kids, but he’s seen what happens to his friends who do.
“It both amuses me and sometimes disturbs me to see the way they behave,” he says. “Particularly how parents interact with each other and compete with each other about their children.”
That, he says, is one reason he loved “God of Carnage” when he saw it on Broadway six or seven years ago, and he’s wanted to direct Yasmina Reza’s play ever since. His production runs through Oct. 13 at Merrimack Repertory Theatre in Lowell.
“I think it’s absolutely truthful and delightful and delicious the way the playwright deals with” those parental egos, says Fabel. “They deteriorate into children themselves.”
Two upscale Brooklyn couples come crashing together when they meet for a supposedly civilized discussion of a playground scrap between their elementary school-age sons. Hosts Michael and Veronica Novak (Stephen Caffrey, Judith Lightfoot Clarke) start out apologetic that their little boy lashed out with a stick. Alan and Annette Raleigh (Joseph Adams, Laura Latreille) are trying to be gracious but fear their son has been “disfigured” by the blow. Over the course of about 85 minutes, this already not-so-simple conversation takes several dark turns, assisted by a bottle of rum.
“You have two couples, but the allegiances are not simply one couple against the other,” Fabel notes. “They change throughout the entire play. The men against the women. The husband in one couple will team up with the wife in the other couple, and they will use each other as weapons against their own partner. There’s infighting within the marriages, there’s fighting between the couples, there’s every possible combination of the above.”
“We call the [Novaks] the ‘crunchy granola’ set, and the [Raleighs] are more high-powered. He’s a lawyer and she’s in financial management,” says Joseph Adams, who plays Alan. “He’s one of these guys who lives on his phone, 24/7. It goes in the shower with him. He’s one of those guys who’s always on the job. He’s not very attentive to the rest of his life, including his wife and child. He means well, but he’s a guy who lives for his work.”
Alan constantly interrupts the back-and-forth to take another call. He is certain of his superior intellect, “and that can piss people off, especially your wife,” Adams says.
Fabel saw the original Broadway production, but well along into its run. “Sopranos” star James Gandolfini, who played Michael, was gone, and Jeff Daniels, who played Alan originally, had switched to that role, with Dylan Baker as Alan.
“I can only imagine that the whole Tony Soprano mystique that James Gandolfini brings would have been a distraction for me, and I think I was lucky enough to see probably a more truthful, more honest production of the play,” he says.
The play offers a challenge theatrically. It’s one act, 85 minutes or so, and plays in real time. So except when characters step out of the room for a few seconds once or twice, there’s no break.
“I talk a lot with the actors through this metaphor of keeping the ball in the air,” Fabel says. “If you think about the game of volleyball, the ball is never allowed to touch the ground. That’s when the game ends, that’s when it’s over. So here we have to think of it as an 85-minute-long volleyball game — or not even a game, but one point, one 85-minute point! The ball can never touch the ground once.”
“You just have to keep that tension going, that tension and that energy,” agrees Adams. “It feels like a schoolyard brawl, which is why I really love the play. Because they become the kids. The adults start out having a little tea and crumpets, and they’re very polite, and they’re just going to smooth everything out. And in the space of an hour and 20 minutes, everything quickly goes to hell. The set is trashed and there’s stuff all over the walls.”