Julie Czarnecki and Ben Lipitz in Walnut Street Theatreâ€™s production of God of Carnage. (Mark Garvin)
When God of Carnage opened on Broadway in 2009, it was nominated for seven Tony awards and won three of them, including best play. Now Philadelphia audiences can see the Walnut Street Theater’s current production of the play, hailed by the New York Times as “First class! A four-way prizefight.”
It’s about two sets of parents who meet because of a fight between their sons in a neighborhood park. One boy hit the other, resulting in an injury to his teeth.
The parents of the two boys get together with intentions of discussing the issue in a civilized way. But the evening soon degenerates into a free-for-all, no-holds-barred conflict, first between the two couples and then between the married partners themselves.
Northeast Philly native Julie Czarnecki is one of the four “prizefighters.” She plays the mother of the son who was injured. As the mother of a young son herself, she easily relates to the character she plays.
“She’s a regular mom who’s trying to do right by her son,” Czarnecki says. “Like any mother, she gets involved when her son is hurt.”
This “regular mom” behaves in a courteous, controlled way at first — but not for long. During the course of this one-act play, inhibitions are stripped away and each of the four characters becomes increasingly negative, taking jabs at one another, hurling insults, even getting involved in some physical confrontations.
For instance, at one point Czarnecki grabs a bottle of rum (fake, of course) from her husband. Then, too, there are moments when her anger escalates and her voice becomes a shriek. At other moments, she cries — even sobs — on cue.
“We get very passionate,” says Czarnecki. “All four of us at some point lose our temper and get out of control.”
Although it sounds like serious drama — even melodrama — it’s actually a comedy. The playwright hows human behavior when it’s stripped of the veneer of courtesy, but the actors are skilled at creating comedy from their over-the-top behavior.
During a recent performance, the audience laughed uproariously at numerous lines. Czarnecki got her share of the laughs — and so did the others. Indeed, all four actors share equally in the spotlight.
“The playwright is so good at letting every character shine,” she says. “We each have our moments when we’re the focus.”
The actor playing her husband is Ben Lipitz. “We have great chemistry on the stage,” Czarnecki says. “He’s easy to work with . . . and very funny.”
The actors playing the other couple are Greg Wood and Susan Riley Stevens, who also are husband and wife offstage. Directing the four is Bernard Havard, the Walnut’s producing artistic director.
ldquo;He’s fantastic!” Czarnecki says. “He creates a supportive and respectful environment for the actors, making it easy for us to our job. We’re free to be imaginative and to take risks.”
Czarnecki’s reaction when she read the script was immediate. ldquo;Some scripts I have to read several times to decide, but with this one, I loved it right away.”
So she was delighted when her audition was successful. “I knew I could connect with these people, and that it would be a great opportunity,” she added.
Indeed, it’s a leading role in an award-winning play — and on the stage of the city’s major regional theater.
But although she’s thrilled with the opportunity, preparing for and then performing this role has involved considerable challenges.
One is the sheer stamina required. The 75-minute play is performed without intermission, and all four actors are onstage virtually the entire time.
“During the entire play, I only leave the stage for about thirty seconds,” says Czarnecki.
Onstage, even when she’s not speaking, she’s constantly communicating through her non-verbal language, with smiles, frowns, tears, raised eyebrows and body language.
She also has a fair share of dialogue, including moments when her voice is at highest pitch. “I drink a ton of water before each performance,” she explains.
But whatever the challenge, the Northeast native can handle it. She already was playing leading roles in school shows during her days at Nazareth Academy. Later, she received her master’s degree in theater from Villanova University, where she was an acting scholar and recipient of the prestigious Brian Morgan Scholarship for Acting.
She has performed on varied area stages, including the Wilma Theater, New City Stage, Arden Theater and Villanova Theater. God of Carnage is her third appearance on the main stage of the Walnut Street Theater.
ldquo;It’s the best place in the city to work!” she says of the Walnut. “They treat actors with so much respect and courtesy.”
Despite the demands of her role in God of Carnage, she looks forward to every performance with her co-stars. “I’m so fortunate to work with such a talented group of actors,” she says. “This experience has exceeded all my expectations. I knew it would be good, but I didn’t know the chemistry among the four of us would be so electric.” ••
IF YOU GO
The Walnut Street Theater production of God of Carnage continues through April 29 at the theater, 825 Walnut St. Tickets range in price from $85 to $10 depending on performance, with evening performances Tuesdays through Saturdays and matinees on Thursday, Saturday and Sunday.
For tickets, call 215–574–3550, visit the Web site at www.walnutstreettheatre.org, or order through Ticketmaster.