By admin on Mar 23, 2009 | In ATW Reviews
When the two couples in Yasmina Reza's God of Carnage bicker about a verb that's going to be part of a statement about an incident between their pre-teen sons, it's a pretty good indication that despite all of the niceties and civil demeanor they display, they're not going to end up being the best of friends. And that's the point of this fleet one-act play that opened last night on Broadway at the Bernard Jacobs Theatre. Reza uses the childish incident – one boy hit another with a stick – to explore how delicate the social fabric is that keeps us two or three steps away from barbarism. It's a thoughtful premise that can invoke gales of laughter.
In Matthew Warchus' stylish production (scenic designer Mark Thompson's abstracted living room environment gorgeously evokes the characters' well-heeled milieu and the caves in which Neanderthals lived), Reza's quartet of outer borough combatants are impeccably brought to life by four stage and screen veterans. Marcia Gay Harden and James Gandolfini play Veronica and Michael, the hosting couple, and the parents whose child was injured. The petite Harden and the bulky Gandolfini visually make something of an odd couple, but the characters seem to enjoy a wonderfully supportive and complementary relationship as the play begins. Jeff Daniels and Hope Davis play Alan and Annette, who enjoy from the get-go a more prickly relationship. He, a corporate attorney who has no problem answering his constantly vibrating cell phone during the get-together, clearly has no patience for the meeting, or for his wife's interest in trying to amicably talk things over with Veronica and Michael.
The uneasy civilities begin to break down slowly over the choice of words that are used to describe the incident and some of the specifics surrounding which boy should go where to apologize. Even as this happens, Veronica attempts to serve cake and coffee along with twittering touchy-feeling aphorisms (Christopher Hampton's translated from Reza's French), but it's not long before chaos has broken loose, and even the nicknames that the couples have for one another become ammunition in the adults' schoolyard-like brawling.
The twists and turns of the sparring give each of these formidable talents a chance to shine. Gandolfini is both moving and terrifically funny once Michael's surprising metrosexual façade has crumbled. Harden ensures that Veronica's new age warmth has just the right level of perky annoyance in it and she deftly combines it with a heart that is truly in the right place, even if some of her actions – for example her upcoming book on Darfur – seem a little hollow. Harden also gets a chance to display her gifts as a physical comedienne: an across the stage dive filled with rage at Gandolfini is a highpoint of the show.
Daniels seems to be relishing the opportunity to play the snide, aloof and cut-throat Alan. If there are lines that could be called "zingers' in the script, they usually fall to Daniels who serves them up marvelously. Daniels is equally effective when silent: a moment when a smirk, preceding a nasty jab at Veronica, seems to take about 90 seconds as it crawl up his face with gleeful maliciousness. As Annette, who is really the first of the four to become unhinged, Davis blends cool detachment with almost lunatic neuroticism, which devolves into an almost frenzy as Annette becomes not only increasingly drunk on some well aged rum that Michael produces but also frustrated by the interruptions that distract Alan. Sadly, many theatergoers will most likely identify with Annette's solution to this latter problem.
As much fun as there is to be had in "Carnage," the piece has its darker message and there are some questions or issues that it raises that feel under-developed or explored. It's hard not to wish that Annette's character as a whole were a bit more developed. She says that she's in "wealth management," but unlike the other characters who seem terrifically defined by both their lives' work and their relationships, Annette seems unduly sketchy. Reza also raises issues about alcoholism in Michael and Veronica's world that remain exasperatingly ambiguous.
One might not notice issues like these were it not for the fact that other details in the play – which initially may seem trivial – are exquisitely worked into its overall structure. Michael's treatment of the family hamster and the incessant calls he accepts from his elderly mother in Florida both pay terrific dividends.
Overall though, theatergoers will most likely not quibble with the former details as there's just too much fun to be had "Carnage," where four consummate actors are working at the top of their game.
---- Andy Propst
God of Carnage plays at the Bernard Jacobs Theatre (242 West 45th Street). Performances are Tuesday at 7:00pm; Wednesday through Saturday at 8:00pm, Wednesday and Saturday at 2pm and Sunday at 3pm. Tickets are $66.50 - $116.50 and can be purchased by calling 212-239-6200 or by visiting www.Telecharge.com. Further information is available online at www.GodOfCarnage.com.
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