God of Carnage @ Bernard B. Jacobs Theatren, New York

cast list
Jeff Daniels, Hope Davis, James Gandolfini, Marcia Gay Harden

directed by
Matthew Warchus
It seems like a regular occurrence nowadays to hear the twinkling, buzzing rings of cell phones in Broadway theatres.

At Frenchwoman Yasmina Reza’s new play God of Carnage, however, audiences will be surprised to find that the majority of calls in the theatre are being taken by the actors on-stage.

Billed as a “comedy of manners without the manners,” God of Carnage is a supremely funny take on parenting and marriage in a world where someone’s “whole life” can be contained on a cell phone and pharmaceutical companies struggle to keep questionable prescription meds on the market.
It’s up to the grown-ups to impart a sense of civility and respect to their children, and the four upper-middle-class subjects on display in Reza’s play, as put-together as they may appear at first, soon expose themselves as wholly inadequate, baring their animal natures.

The play begins with two sets of frazzled parents gathering to discuss a recent playground incident that’s left one son with some nasty dental damage. Veronica and Michael, parents of the victim, have done all they can to be good hosts. They’ve opened up their home in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn in the hopes of coming to a truce. Veronica’s prepared a clafouti (a pretentiously French cake), and Michael’s bought tulips from a nearby Korean deli.

Annette and Alan appear at first to be receptive to negotiations. They quibble over whether their son was “armed” or “furnished” with a stick, and Veronica and Michael quickly accept the change of terminology. But it’s all slides down a slippery slope from there. Alan, a lawyer, begins taking calls from a colleague as they negotiate claims against a prescription drug company.

Soon, the seams of their facades begin to unravel. It’s revealed that Michael helped kill off the family hamster the previous night. And Annette and Alan let slip that the reason behind their children’s squabble is that Veronica and Michael’s son had refused to let theirs into his gang.

Pettiness ensues, followed by vomiting, flower-strewing, and plenty of other off-the-wall physical comedy, as the sets of spouses, who began by bolstering each other’s egos, allow their delicate support systems to break, realizing that humans are fundamentally alone in their struggle despite the ties of marriage.

At one point, as Veronica sits on a child-size stool, Michael, having proclaimed himself a Neanderthal, stands on the other side of the room railing against marriage. Annette accuses him of demeaning himself, but he merely sticks his tongue out at her.

As the breakdown of their civility accelerates, the central question of the play arises. Are humans merely subject to the “god of carnage,” as Alan conjectures? Or is there such a thing as improvement?

Reza, who wrote the smash hit Art, an international success about a decade ago, proves her mettle once again. She often maintains that her plays are not dramatic comedies, as critics tend to regard them, but rather comedic dramas. This play, which on the surface seems merely a glossy showcase for its four stars, supports this assertion. Underneath the jokes, it crackles with a desperation that worms its way into the awkward pauses in the couples’ parental war council.

As clever as the play may be on paper, however, the physical nature of the comedy relies on a talented foursome of actors to allow the material to truly jump off the page. Luckily, this production is armed (or is it furnished?) with just that. Jeff Daniels is appropriately smarmy as louche lawyer Alan, perfectly complemented by Hope Davis’s Annette, a cowering doormat of a woman whose upturned eyes transmit her longing to pull herself out from under her husband’s feet.

James Gandolfini, in his first significant post-Sopranos role, pulls of the role of average Joe wholesaler Michael with aplomb, a philistine of a guy next to his erudite wife Veronica, a writer and art-lover, whose role is perhaps the showiest, most fleshed-out of the four. Even amongst a uniformly excellent cast, Marcia Gay Harden’s still manages to stand out as the most textured performance as she at turns cowers in fear and rails against the incivility of the others.

To accommodate the new U.S. setting, Christopher Hampton’s translation, prepared for the 2007 London production (which retained the play’s original French setting), has been wisely Americanized. The insult “grass” has been changed to “snitch.” “Fundamentally uncouth” has become “total fucking Neanderthal.” These small touches make a world of difference to the plausibility of these bawdy Brooklynites.

Set designer Mark Thompson plays with the primal flourishes of Reza’s writing, containing the vibrant red playing space in a clean white proscenium and decorating Veronica and Michael’s home with a crackled dividing wall and African print pillows. Pounding drums heralding the start and end of the play (music is by Gary Yershon) aid in creating the same effect.

As it’s been perfectly paced by British director Matthew Warchus (who also helmed the London production), this ninety-minute play goes by without a watch-checking moment in sight. It’s a truly taut play, pared down to its bare essentials, exposing its characters’ flaws with an excoriating, acidic glee that makes for excellent comedy as much as for satisfying drama.

By the time the play is over, audiences will likely be arguing over the foursomes outrageous behaviors on-stage; God of Carnage is most definitely a conversation-starter. With all its animalistic antics, the experience of the play is kind of like a trip to an exotic zoo, and boy what a magnificent pedigree is on display.

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