Review of "God of Carnage" on Broadway
Reporting from New York—Civilization’s thin veneer gets mercilessly stripped in “God of Carnage,” French playwright Yasmina Reza’s savage comedy about two urban couples attempting to maturely resolve an altercation that occurred between their 11-year-old sons in a neighborhood park. This quartet fits the demographic that European writers and filmmakers love to defile—affluent, well-educated and liberal (sort of like their audience). In other words, don’t count on the characters setting a sterling example for the kids.
The play, which opened Sunday at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre on Broadway in a translation by Christopher Hampton, might be even more puncturing of bourgeois self-regard than “Art,” Reza’s international blockbuster that won the 1998 Tony for best play. It’s also just as sleekly schematic, the action efficiently distilled to make a big cynical point about those most pompously self-deluding creatures known as Homo sapiens. (You know who you are.)
Fortunately, the presence of four of the more theatrically talented members of the species—Jeff Daniels, Hope Davis, James Gandolfini and a truly hilarious Marcia Gay Harden—adds diverse personality to a work that is très- très -français in its marriage of mechanical boulevard comedy and abstract drama of ideas. These sacred traditions in French theater don’t square easily with our own less intellectual, more character-based sensibilities, but the actors find ways of fluffing out the play’s chicly flat demonstration with their full-blooded individuality.
Directed by Matthew Warchus, a frequent collaborator with Reza, the production is set in a high-end Brooklyn loft, the kind that creative types love but only those in business can typically afford. The furniture is spare and contemporary, art books abound, and decorative touches include two glass vases stuffed to the brim with white tulips—floral arrangements that turn out to be almost as consequential as pistols that appear in the first acts of old-fashioned melodramas.
Mark Thompson’s scenic design includes a red-wall backdrop, which along with the sound of jungle drums at the top of the show, foreshadows Reza’s central theme of a primitive aggression that’s untameable by society. But the ambiance also ties in with the obsession Veronica (Harden) has for all things African, from the continent’s art and artifacts to its genocides (she has a book coming out on Darfur).
Veronica prides herself on her enlightened consciousness, which is why she has eagerly enlisted her husband, Michael (Gandolfini), a wholesale supplier of domestic hardware, to host a U.N.-style diplomatic effort with Alan (Daniels) and Annette (Davis), the parents of the boy who knocked two teeth out of their son’s mouth with a stick. Here’s an opportunity for her to showcase her progressive chops and her inspired baking at the same time.
Alan, a lawyer who keeps taking calls on his cell phone about a pharmaceutical company he’s defending, doesn’t have patience for all this designer-parent negotiation. He’d rather just write a check to cover what the insurance company won’t and get back to his ethically dubious machinations.
His self-effacing wife, Annette (Davis), however, is more concerned with neighborly appearances. She cringes at her husband’s rude remarks and the way he hacks away at Veronica’s home-made clafouti with specially prepared apples and pears.
Alan’s behavior literally makes Annette sick. She vomits all over control-freak Veronica’s precious art books, in a scene that is staged in more graphic detail than usual. It’s gross. Reza clearly wants to unsettle audience members, to deny them the customary middle-class evasions and niceties.
She has also painted herself into a corner, confining the drama to one room and fueling it through increasingly acrimonious talk. The static nature of the situation provokes extreme gestures. Reza has given her grown-ups nothing to do but reveal their barely suppressed adolescent frustrations and rage, which Warchus coaxes into a freeform wrestling match with slapstick flourishes.
The amusement of the piece comes from watching masks fall. Self-engrossed and morally lax, Daniels’ Alan may be the most immediately dislikable of the group, but he's also the most honest about his degenerate character. Ordering an espresso when Annette is barely able to ask for water, he’s shamelessly unconcerned with what others think of him. Alan saves his double-talk for his job, not caring to put on a false face unless he’s going to be amply paid for it.
Gandolfini’s Michael doesn’t want to disappoint his wife, who has a lot invested in sorting out this incident involving the children (“I’m standing up for civilization,” she unironically announces after things start to go awry.) But once Michael breaks out a bottle of expensive rum, his behavior becomes debauched. The anecdote about what he did the previous night with his kid’s poor hamster takes on a starker reality as his jaded nature cracks through.
Davis’ Annette is in “wealth management,” which fits into the play’s grand scheme, but her mousy demeanor doesn’t suggest such a professional identity anymore than Alan’s slobby selfishness makes it easy to believe that he’s flying to the Hague tomorrow to prosecute a case in the International Criminal Court. (Hampton doesn’t always nail the cultural nuances in this Americanized version).
Still, it’s an enormous treat to watch self-contained Annette succumb to her pent-up rage at her husband. Davis, whose exquisite, slightly somber looks lend the impression of a fragile sang-froid, lucidly lays out Annette’s journey from dutiful wife retching into a bucket to domestic terrorist targeting Alan’s incessantly ringing cell phone.
But the theatrical pièce de résistance is in the hollering manner in which Harden’s Veronica descends from her high-and-mighty perch into the muck of human relations. This concerned mom goes from earthy perfectionist to foul-mouth termagant, all the while defending the righteousness of her various causes.
“God of Carnage” may have the feel of a play in which characters have no choice but to fall in line with their playwright’s nihilistic manipulations, but with actors this ferociously robust, human nature seems to have its own incorrigible agenda.
Photo: Jeff Daniels, left, and James Gandolfini. Credit: Joan Marcus.