Theater review: 'God of Carnage' at the Ahmanson Theatre
Conflict has long been the soul of drama, but contemporary playwrights such as Tracy Letts and Neil LaBute (following in the footsteps of Edward Albee and David Mamet) have taken this one step further — they've made hostility the brains and guts of their operation.
Add French playwright Yasmina Reza to this combative list. “God of Carnage,” her Tony-winning battle royal, which opened Wednesday at the Ahmanson Theatre with its original Broadway dream cast, starts off all civilized and urbane. But it quickly descends into the most raucous display of primitive aggression you're likely to see among characters who undoubtedly pay full price for their clothes at Barneys and spend something in the vicinity of a fireman's yearly salary on private-school tuition.
This second encounter with the play hasn't done much to improve my initial estimation of it as essentially a one-joke comedy about the Neanderthal lurking within today's proudly progressive city-dweller. But any stage work that can bring out the bestial best in James Gandolfini, Marcia Gay Harden, Jeff Daniels and Hope Davis is all right with me, even if it must be said that Matthew Warchus' concentrated production would have been more at home in a less cavernous environment than the Ahmanson.
“God of Carnage” unleashes its all-star quartet, disguised as concerned parents of boys who have just had a violent after-school altercation, in a fussy loft in one of those Brooklyn neighborhoods that have become a pricey residential annex of Manhattan. This is where Veronica (Harden), a writer and art lover with a particular obsession with all things African, and her husband, Michael (Gandolfini), a household goods wholesaler, live with their two children, one of whom has just had a couple of his teeth knocked out in Cobble Hill Park.
The assailant is the 11-year-old-son of Alan (Daniels) and Annette (Davis), both of whom are trying to display the right amount of parental contrition. Alan, a high-powered lawyer with the distracted focus of a teenager on Facebook, is admittedly having a harder time than Annette, who works in “wealth management” and is better trained at saying what's expected of her.
Veronica, doling out liberal bromides about “the art of co-existence” as though they were fresh hors d'oeuvres, seems to have masterminded this meeting, a show of good bourgeoisie values that makes Alan especially uncomfortable. He smugly acknowledges, in the way that only a certain kind of cutthroat male professional can get away with, that he has “no manners.” But the real truth is that he has bigger fish to fry: A pharmaceutical firm he represents has a crisis requiring his highly lucrative cover-up skills. Why is this woman wasting his time over a playground incident?
Let the warfare begin. Directed by Warchus, who also staged Reza's “Art” and “Life (x) 3” on Broadway, the production has a field day turning Mark Thompson's elegant set into a zone of mayhem. The living room's violent red carpeting is a hint that all the carefully arranged art books and vases of white tulips aren't going to remain neatly in place. But for an afternoon gathering in which a fancy clafoutis is served, who would have ever dreamed that adult behavior could degenerate to a level far below that of an adolescent brawl?
Reza hopes to offend. Why else would her stage directions, in Christopher Hampton's occasionally starchy translation, call for a “brutal and catastrophic spray” of vomit? Annette has been literally made sick by her husband's behavior and the vise-like tension of this humiliating situation. The scene, in which Veronica's precious coffee table books are splattered, is shocking in its grossness, and no doubt one of the reasons Roman Polanski, who has always enjoying shining a light in forbidden places, is turning the play into a film (scheduled to be released at the end of the year).
Veronica — robustly brought to life by Harden, who won a Tony for hilariously portraying a control freak come undone — protests that she doesn't "see the point of existence without some kind of moral conception of the world.” But the play can't resist pointing out the vanity of her view: When things don't go her way, she snarls and stampedes like a wild beast.
Even if Reza's moral is mechanically delivered, there's something theatrically bracing about the sight of grown-ups throwing off their civilized constraints. Daniels' Alan, blunt and self-satisfied, is the supreme baiter of people's worst traits. After the rum is cracked open, he has Gandolfini's more measured Michael calling marriage the “most terrible ordeal God can inflict on you” and complaining that “children consume our lives and then destroy them.”
It's certainly easy for Alan to get under Veronica's skin. All he has to do is impugn her motives for writing a book on Darfur, and you can practically see the veins throbbing in her allegedly “self-serving” neck. And his habit of turning whatever space he's in into his mobile office is enough to drive Davis' Annette — who grows delightfully bolder with exasperation — into a fit of cellphone vigilantism.
The play's insights hardly constitute breaking news, but what great fun it is watching these characters tear into one another's self-regard. The performances are broader than they were on Broadway — the Ahmanson requires the actors to ratchet up their technique — but they're still a chomping treat.
A few more notes of tenderness — such as the brief moments of solidarity shared by Michael and Veronica when Annette is cleaning herself of puke in the bathroom — would have strengthened our interest in the ensuing behavioral collapse. But there's nothing like enmity to rivet a crowd.
“God of Carnage,” Ahmanson Theatre, Los Angeles Music Center, 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A. 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays. (Call for exceptions.) Ends May 29
$20 to $120. (213) 972-4400 or www.CenterTheatreGroup.org/GOC Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes (no intermission)
Photos: Top: Jeff Daniels, Marcia Gay Harden, Hope Davis, James Gandolfini. Bottom: Gandolfini and Harden. Credit: Barbara Davidson/Los Angeles Times