The Rep's God of Carnage doesn't draw much blood 

Yasmina Reza's award-winning God of Carnage, now onstage at Tennessee Repertory Theatre, is a strange exercise — a triumph of facile cleverness and snide wit that never delivers on its threat to deepen into something darker. Theatergoers who come for superficial verbal sparring delivered with gusto will get it, thanks to generally strong work from the quartet of David Alford, Jeff Boyet, Shelean Newman and Shannon Hoppe. But those waiting for something more must settle for a highbrow sitcom that skims the surface of its sole idea —polite society is thin ice hiding a shark tank of seething hostility. 

Reza's snark-infested waters are the living room where two married couples meet to hash out their kids' playground scuffle — you know, like civilized adults. Alford plays a self-absorbed lawyer wedded to his cell phone; Hoppe, his nominal wife, is in wealth management. Across the coffee table, Boyet is a wholesaler married to Newman, a writer interested in Africa. Their conversation starts civilly enough, only to downshift into its true register — nitpicking, contention, one-upmanship, cynical browbeating and open insults.    

As the entrenched adults abandon their PC poses and line up for battle, Reza provides some memorable zingers ("I have no sense of humor and I have no intention of acquiring one!") and an air of sophistication under siege by bad behavior. And director Rene Copeland wrings every laugh, modest or immodest, out of her striving ensemble. Alford gets the lion's share of the jokes and socks them across with venomous zest, while the rest of the cast works their supply of one-liners, slapstick moments and satirical diversions — oh yeah, and an extremely protracted vomiting scene.

But a little of Reza's contrived rancor goes a long way, even as couples comedy, and frankly there's not that much about the play to distinguish it from dinner-theater fare, except the vomiting (we hope). Reza's intermittent stabs at profundity come off as merely pretentious, and her unlikable characters are too cartoonish to engage our identification, let alone our sympathies — unlike, say, the couples in Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, a play that successfully shifts from nervous laughter into something more challenging and upsetting. Don't be fooled by the title: God of Carnage could use a little more bloodletting. 

Email arts@nashvillescene.com.

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