Thursday, May 20, 2010

"God of Carnage" Takes a Bite Out of Broadway

When Yasmina Reza's "God of Carnage" opened on Broadway last season, it was a hot ticket with a hot cast. Jeff Daniels, Hope Davis, James Gandolfini and Marcia Gay Harden – or in other words, the entire cast – were nominated for Tony Awards. Marcia Gay Harden won as Best Actress, the play won Best Play, and director Matthew Warchus, who had also directed the play in its London premier, won Best Director.

Daniels, Davis, Gandolfini and Harden stayed in their roles until November 15th, after which Christine Lahti, Annie Potts, Jimmy Smits and Ken Stott (who had originated the role of Michael, a locks, doorknobs and saucepan magnate, in the British production) took over. After three months, Jeff Daniels came back, but as Michael instead of slimy lawyer Alan this time, and he was joined by Dylan Baker, Lucy Liu and Janet McTeer, another star from the London show, which won an Olivier Award. McTeer had played Veronica, the ferociously maternal role Marcia Gay Harden won her Tony for.

So far, it seems to be a cast-proof play, since every one of them has received excellent reviews, with some critics calling the current cast the best one yet. Although I’d have liked to see Harden’s take on Veronica, I have to say, this is one play that comes off much better and much funnier on stage than it does on the page. I have a feeling it will be booked at every possible regional venue, just because four middle-aged actors and one set is a pretty attractive proposition all by itself. Add a feisty, funny script about marriage, child-rearing and whether we have evolved at all since our cave days, and it’s irresistible.

Reza’s script is both outrageous and affecting as it takes on interpersonal relationships in the modern world, not with a scalpel but with a sledgehammer. In Reza’s world, we may pretend to be civilized and mature, to care about our lovely books, our pretty floral arrangements and our recipes for pear-and-apple clafouti, but when push comes to shove, we’re just kids on the playground, pushing and shoving and bashing each other over the head when tempers flare.

The conflict between these two couples – Alan, the lawyer, and Annette, his wealth-manager wife, versus Michael, the households goods wholesaler, and his wife Veronica, who has written a book about Darfur and works part-time in an art history bookstore – stems from exactly that sort of playground battle. As the play opens, we discover that there was an altercation between Benjamin, Alan and Annette’s eleven-year-old son, and Henry, Michael and Veronica’s son of the same age. In fact, Benjamin smacked Henry with a stick, and Henry ended up with a swollen lip and two broken teeth.

As the two couples discuss how best to deal with this situation, things become increasingly less civilized. Alan keeps yammering on his cell phone, Annette is feeling decidedly unwell, Veronica can’t stop talking about her daughter’s missing hamster, and Michael starts to chafe under the collar, both literally and figuratively. Before long, everybody is mad at everybody, both inside and outside the marriages, and chaos reigns.

It’s to Reza’s credit – and also to Christopher Hampton’s, who translated from the original French – that these four flawed people are always funnier than they are annoying, and that they’re frequently recognizable as people we know, even in our own households. That recognition may also make us uneasy, and I think that’s the point. Our thin veneer of civilization is so easy to abandon, even when we’re well-off family folks, sitting in a beautiful New York apartment, surrounded by the finer things. It doesn’t matter who you are or where you are; the god of carnage, who has “ruled uninterruptedly since the dawn of time,” is lurking there, waiting to throw us at each other.

“God of Carnage” closes at the Bernard Jacobs Theatre on June 6. If you’re in the vicinity before then, for goodness sake, get there and get a ticket. All four actors are amazing – yes, even Lucy Liu in her Broadway debut – and all those regional productions on the horizon may tamp down the fire and the fury.


  1. Thanks for this fascinating review, Julie! I hope we may look forward to further reports from your week in NYC.

  2. Thanks, Jon. I planned to do one each day once I got back, but found myself knee-deep in real life stuff. Boo hoo!

    But, yes, I plan to write about the other shows, as well. Warning: The word "sublime" will be used at least once in the piece about "Sondheim on Sondheim."

  3. Great account. Janet McTeer and Christine Lahti are some of my favorite actresses! Well, so are Marcia Gay Harden and Annie Potts and Hope Davis, too. And I like Lucy Liu just fine.

  4. I have in fact been waiting for the one with "sublime" in it. I will probably be moved in that direction in the comments, too.