A few months ago, director Daniel Goldstein and scenic designer Dane Laffrey went prowling around the Cobble Hill section of Brooklyn, peering in windows like a pair of peeping Toms. They deliberately set out at night so they could see inside the elegant townhouses in the tony neighborhood, which is known as much for its opulence as for its family-friendly environment. They tried to keep a low profile as they cased the area and stole glimpses of the rarefied artwork and the exquisite furnishings inside other people’s homes.
As suspicious as it might have appeared, the surveillance was all in the name of research for “God of Carnage,’’ Yasmina Reza’s popular comedy that begins a monthlong run tonight at the Huntington Theatre Company - one week before Roman Polanski’s movie adaptation, “Carnage,’’ opens here.
The play, originally set in Paris but relocated to Brooklyn in Christopher Hampton’s translation for American productions, centers on two sets of parents who get together after their teenage sons have had a nasty brawl. The meeting is ostensibly about making peace, but instead, the characters destroy each other - along with an enormous vase of tulips, some rare art monographs, and a cellphone. Even a pet hamster meets its unlikely end. These seemingly civilized people behave like primitive creatures and tear each other to pieces, along with their surroundings.
The creative team felt it was critical to devise a pristine environment. “Every pile of books aches with, you know, anal retentiveness and OCD,’’ Laffrey says. “It has to be completely perfect. You have to establish that formality to be able to destroy it.’’
The late-night snooping in Brooklyn was just the beginning of the design process. Laffrey spent hours and hours in ABC Carpet and Home, a home furnishing store in Manhattan that features the highest of the high end. He trolled real estate websites, examining photos of Brooklyn brownstones and comparing prices. Townhouses start at around $4 million and can go as high as $10 million, depending on the size and condition. He discovered that size matters. The wider the unit, the greater the prestige. “One foot of width in a townhouse adds a million dollars,’’ he says. “Imagine your friends coming in and saying, ‘Oh, it’s so wide in here.’ ’’
The set, he says, acknowledges the style typical of the neighborhood, but it is “a satirization of modern architectural renovation that goes well beyond anything we saw on the streets of Brooklyn.’’ Some of the houses he examined had been lovingly restored, while others had been aggressively remade. He decided that the couple in the play, Veronica and Michael Novak, would have gutted their home, creating a huge great room dominated by an imposing staircase. Veronica is a writer working on a book about “the Darfur tragedy’’; her husband makes a fortune selling toilets.
The goal was to evoke a sense of “the genteel, bourgeois moneyed thing’’ that defines the neighborhood, but also to emphasize the theatricality of the environment. The set is plopped down in the center of the Boston University Theatre; there are no side walls. “When you see it, you are looking at the pipes and bricks of the Huntington,’’ Goldstein explains. “There is a reminder that you are watching a play.’’
The set and its furnishings are designed to facilitate the comedy. The meeting takes place because of the children, but there is a not a single shred of evidence that anyone under the age of 30 has ever set foot in this house. The huge wooden staircase, with its lovely parquet pattern, crisscrosses the set on two levels. There are no railings. “It’s immensely treacherous, and a kid would be killed in there in a minute,’’ Laffrey says. “It’s hilarious.’’
There is nothing playful or utilitarian about it. Every single item onstage is a carefully curated objet d’art, from the African masks, to the coffee table made of petrified wood, to the bold 8-foot-wide chandelier that resembles a Calder mobile. The chairs and sofa are low to the ground, which is fine if you live there, but unnerving for visitors unused to the surroundings. “It is a confrontation rather than a narrative play, and it felt important to pressurize that,’’ Laffrey says. “The space should make the other couple uncomfortable, so they become agitated and alienated.’’
It’s one thing to browse in exclusive furniture boutiques and to prowl around the streets of Brooklyn, but it’s another thing entirely to acquire all the finery needed to re-create the aura of money. Almost every item Laffrey wanted for the set exceeds the entire budget for props, which is $4,500. The tulips that are destroyed every night will cost $1,200 over the course of the run. The Arredoluce chandelier alone would retail for a mere $16,000 or $17,000. A pair of low-slung Alpha Bamba chairs, upholstered in a sunshiny orange fabric, would cost $4,800. A restored Adrian Pearsall sofa would sell for upward of $5,000.
So how do you create such an upscale environment on a regional theater budget? That task falls to the Huntington’s properties master, Kristine Holmes, who is long accustomed to begging, borrowing, or building from scratch. She built the chandelier herself, using lampshades borrowed from Allen’s Antique Lighting in Harvard, Mass. She made African-influenced coat pegs from pieces of maple she cut from a tree in her backyard. She and her assistant made replicas of two designer bamboo chairs from diagrams they found online. “There’s a fine line in the copying,’’ she says. “It’s good fun, but it’s stressful.’’
Holmes found the pedigreed couch on Craigslist for a pittance of what it would cost in an antique store, and she reupholstered it. But there’s more to the couch than just fabric and fashion. Midway through the play, one of the characters loses her lunch all over the lovely surroundings. As props master, Holmes is responsible for any onstage fluids, and she had to find a way to rig the vomit scene. She ended up borrowing a pneumatic system from the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, which produced the play last year. It’s tucked into the back of the couch, with a tube that goes up through the seat cushion. One actor has a hose hidden in her costume, and at the right moment, she hooks the hose into the system and, voila, the pristine set is sprayed with liquid the color of bile.
The play, which was a hit on Broadway in a 2009 production starring James Gandolfini and Marcia Gay Harden, is being produced at regional theaters all over the country, and Holmes and her colleagues have shared tips on how to pull off the carnage created onstage. Several characters exit to use the restroom, and in the Broadway production, the lavatory was offstage. At the Huntington, the bathroom is in full view on the second story of the set, complete with a toilet that Laffrey describes as a “slick, wall-mounted Japanese number.’’
The set, powder room included, is meant to bring into relief the primitive nature beneath the veneer of this civilized class of people. Early in the play, one character mentions the gruesome fate of a pet hamster, and in a subversive way, Laffrey is attempting to create the feel of a rodent habitat. A white laminate tunnel leads to the house’s entryway, and a glass tube-like structure encloses the bathroom. Staircases crisscross to hidden offstage lairs. Preparing for the production, Laffrey even took temporary ownership of a hamster as part of his research. The borrowed hamster will, in fact, play a minor role in the production, but Laffrey doesn’t want to give too much away. “The idea of the hamster wasn’t lost on us,’’ he says. “They are these slightly disturbed creatures, always trying to get out. It connects up to the primitive side of all this. We wanted a sort of primitive feel amidst all the high-endedness.’’
The hamster, he points out, was returned to its rightful owner and no animals were harmed, just as no damage was done during the initial snooping expedition on the streets of Brooklyn.