ALAMEDA -- The Altarena Playhouse unveiled two delightful new projects this past weekend -- a lobby library chronicling the company's 75 years of existence and Yasmina Reza's insightful comedy "God of Carnage."
Patrons awaiting curtain time eagerly browsed through the beautifully bound binders detailing productions since the theater began in 1938. Historian Susan Dunn encourages anyone with additional memorabilia for this work-in-progress to contact the theater.
"Of the 410 shows produced at the Altarena, we have 390 programs. We'd love to get the missing 20," Dunn said.
When the flashing lights announced the beginning of the show, patrons entered the theater for a history of a slightly different type -- the evolution (or not) of man. What begins as a civilized conversation between two well-educated couples turns into mayhem as they attempt and fail to settle a playground altercation between their 11-year-old sons. Sharply written by Reza, the play's alliances shift continually as the two couples regress to a more infantile, at times Neanderthal, state.
The Novaks, liberal earth mother Veronica (Sharon Huff Robinson) and her more blue-collar husband Michael (Ben Ortega), have invited the well-heeled Alan and Annette Raleigh over to discuss the altercation in which the Novaks' son has been injured. Alan (Paul Araquistain), a lawyer who can't stay off his cell phone, and Annette (JanLee Marshall), a wealth management specialist, seem more than willing to admit guilt and cooperate, but as the evening wears on nothing seems certain as allegiances are made and broken and vast quantities of rum are consumed. In Reza's clever comedy, political correctness goes out the window and the god of carnage takes over.
Director Sue Trigg heightens the entertainment with well-timed physical comedy and one hilarious, though somewhat disturbing, special effect. Set designer Stewart Lyle has created a simple, yet stylish set highlighted by scenic painter Darrell Burson's red-stained tile floor. But it is the actors who do the heavy lifting in Reza's multifaceted play, which requires them to make difficult, lightning-quick transitions.
Ben Ortega, as the chest-thumping hardware store owner Michael, draws on his extensive acting experience to create a realistic yet incredibly funny character. As his wife, Veronica, Sharon Huff Robinson takes her character from caring earth mother to raging lunatic with aplomb. Meanwhile, Paul Araquistain's Alan goes from irritating lawyer to one of the more likable characters with Jan Lee Marshall as his wife providing some of the funniest moments in the show when her character's frustration literally bubbles over.
"God of Carnage" plays Thursdays through Sundays through Feb. 17 in the Altarena Playhouse at 1409 High St. in Alameda. Call 510-523-1553 or go to www.altarena.org for tickets.