Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - December 9, 2009
God of Carnage by Yasmina Reza. Translated by Christopher Hampton. Directed by Matthew Warchus. Scenic and costume design by Mark Thompson. Lighting design by Hugh Vanstone. Music by Gary Yershon. Sound design by Simon Baker/Christopher Cronin. Cast: Christine Lahti, Annie Potts, Jimmy Smits, and Ken Stott.
That's a difficult situation for any show today, particularly a new play on Broadway. The original cast was undeniably a producer's dream: Jeff Daniels, Hope Davis, James Gandolfini, and Marcia Gay Harden (who snagged a Tony Award), all of whom possessed glimmering screen credits in addition to more-than-satisfying theatre bona fides. To ensure success, director Matthew Warchus (who also earned a Tony) had little to do but establish the general premise, wind it up, and let it go.
Such is not exactly the case now. Christine Lahti, Annie Potts, and Jimmy Smits are no slouches in the name-wattage department, but - let's face it - don't outwardly compare in terms of drawing power. Nor do they provide as grandly gussied-up a starting point for the breakdown of orderly society that the play documents, the crisp sanity that's just waiting for the ideal moment to dissolve into bickering, prop-throwing, and (in what remains one of the most memorable scenes) projectile vomiting.
The unavoidable fact is that seeing the show now is in no way the same experience as seeing it the first time. Which, let's be clear, is in no way a bad thing. Warchus and the show's producers have cannily avoided the typical trap of replacing biggest-name actors by not even attempting to fill the roles with analogs for the originals. And in spite of the ways it's stumbled - just a little bit - God of Carnage is stronger for the difference.
The first time around, the action seemed to sympathize with Daniels and Davis's characters, Alan and Annette Raleigh, who ventured to the Cobble Hill home of Michael and Veronica Novack to discuss the small matter of their son hitting the Novack's in the mouth with a stick. Alan, a suave lawyer, and Annette, a "wealth manager," set the tone for an evening in which the Raleighs would cascade down the hill of propriety and demolish practically everything in their wake - including the coarse-but-trying Michael and Veronica and, eventually, themselves.
Now, however, the polarity has flipped. As the Novacks, Lahti and Ken Stott (who originated the role of Michael in London) don't convey the idea they're trying to meet the Raleighs on their level but that they're already there by way of cunning charade. Every hint that the couple isn't exactly who they claim to be and each suggestion (whether stated or internalized) that they don't belong where they are has been magnified to imposing proportions. Reza's subtle point that you can never put all your faith or trust in human nature comes through far more clearly in Lahti's frazzled-from-the-start portrayal, which finds serenity as Veronica's world implodes, than it did with Harden, who only gradually let us see the extent of her façade.
Smits and Potts themselves emanate more of a middle-class vibe than did Daniels and Davis, which partially defangs the earliest moments of the show in which Alan and Annette visibly condescend to Michael and Veronica's urban naïveté. But this pays off new dividends as the play unfolds, showing them to be merely different kinds of pretenders from the Novacks. Alan and Annette are in no way better, they're just further along the path, which gives them more ammunition but also that much farther to fall when things turn sour. And when things curdle completely, these four are just as effective as their predecessors of communicating the breakdown of two marriages, four personalities, and the fictions on which existence is so often constructed.
Alan's relentless focus on his cell phone and smarmy meanderings around the law as he deals with a pharmaceutical client's legal troubles do not come as natural to Smits as the moments of placating geniality, so Smits stumbles noticeably when he's not battling away at ground zero. This has a weakening but not debilitating effect, but is not exacerbated by Smits's costars. Potts puts a frothy, neurotic spin on the homemaker-unwisely-turned-sophisticate Annette that gorgeously crumbles as their meeting careens; and Lahti's dry-throated desperation makes Veronica's pronouncements about everything from playground bullying to Darfur sound like a strangled - but nonetheless carefully calculated - cry for help.
It's Stott, however, who represents both the biggest leap in characterization and is the production's genuine find. Gandolfini's Michael was thoughtful, almost cerebral, underscoring how he viewed every second of life according to a plan. Stott's, however, is thoroughly instinctual, cuddling a bottle of rum with a death grip, jumping without embarrassment into drunkenness, and justifying each of his pointed double-crosses and turnarounds as the most appropriate choice for that moment. This rampant unpredictability also makes Michael a lot funnier - Gandolfini approached the character's many jokes gingerly from the front, but Stott plows under them from behind, knocking over everyone (including the audience) during his attack.
The character and his actor, then, are the perfect symbols for this repopulated production: earthy reality upending celestial dominance. No, you won't be seeing exactly the production that opened in March. But this one is every bit as daring, original, and rewarding because Warchus and Reza have ensured that God of Carnage works just as well when you're forced to pay full attention to the play rather as when you can't stop looking at the luminaries appearing in it.