Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - March 22, 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: Jeff Daniels, Hope Davis, James Gandolfini, Marcia Gay Harden.
Their joy and the characters’ despair alike emanate from the abundant absurdity and rampant professionalism in which everything is immersed. The seemingly innocuous meeting between four ostensibly level-headed people that almost instantly devolves into catastrophic combat that wreaks havoc on families and psyches is a fiery realization of every civilized person’s unspoken nightmare. But as performed by Jeff Daniels, Hope Davis, James Gandolfini, and Marcia Gay Harden under Matthew Warchus’s direction, the most maniacally mundane of horrors becomes magically theatrical.
It starts off innocent enough. Alan and Annette (Daniels and Davis) arrive at the home of Michael and Veronica (Gandolfini and Harden) to work out a disagreement between their sons. Alan and Annette’s hit Michael and Veronica’s with a stick, fattening his lip and breaking two teeth. All four want to make amends, and for the boys to learn the most they can from the experience. But because each person has wildly different outlooks on how that should happen, this routine visit soon becomes anything but.
“How many parents standing up for their children become infantile themselves?” asks Annette early on, and her question is the obvious irony around which events turn. But Reza and Christopher Hampton, who has translated Reza’s play from the original French, make clear that this story is less about parents and children than about humanity’s inherent violent childishness. These are all white, middle-class Americans, but their willingness to raze mountains over their sons’ fight shows their culture and society is disintegrating no less rapidly than those in Africa that Veronica documents.
As this realization hits and each person’s carefully constructed barriers collapse, they unveil the real people propriety compels them to hide. The usually animated Alan is so addicted to his cell phone that when he’s separated from it, he all but transforms into a lump of lead. Annette cannot maintain her mild manners (or keep down food) when being assaulted for things beyond her control. Michael’s a mass of hypocrisy, decrying passive-aggressive force after releasing his daughter’s hamster onto the street. And if Veronica doesn’t get her way, she’ll see to it that no one else does, either.
It’s astringently serious stuff, but there’s almost nothing heavy-handed about its treatment. Warchus’s staging is frank, but also buoyant and brutal, ebbing and flowing between light and the dark as smoothly as the characters’ moods do. (It’s only in the last minute, when Warchus relies too heavily on symbolism to underscore the play’s unmissable theme, that he overplays his hand.) Designers Mark Thompson (sets and costumes) and Hugh Vanstone (lights) are just as vividly subtle with their creations. They’ve all taken to heart two of the script’s earliest (and richest) stage directions: “No realism. Nothing superfluous.”
Reza and Hampton couldn’t have embraced those precepts more fully themselves. As with Reza’s previous plays on Broadway, Art and Life (x) 3, God of Carnage enlarges everyday concerns to show the exquisitely detailed facets within them - but without revealing the microscope. This play’s quartet enacts our secret hatreds and fantasies, demonstrating (with deliriously devastating results) why we shouldn’t do the same. Hampton (who also translated Reza’s other plays) complements this with his lively and idiomatic language that’s full of brusque, common poetry that stings as it sings.
Because of how rapidly and often the characters’ allegiances shift (between partners, between genders, and between guiding philosophies), each actor must be capable of becoming anything at any given moment - and, most importantly, of becoming nothing at evening’s end. All four actors are terrific - not least because they evince such stiff stolidity in the opening scene, trying to work out the precise language they’ll use to describe their sons’ playground altercation, that you’re sure you’re in for an evening of lumbering waxworks. But no.
Daniels is reservedly dynamic, a master of Alan’s defining bipolarity, and electrically annoying as he juggles his work and home lives with varying degrees of failure. In the play’s most loosely written role, Gandolfini brings a bracing intelligence and calculated, coolness to a man that could easily come across as a victimized schlub; Gandolfini’s Michael is always in some kind of control. Harden needs only to preside over Veronica’s claw-scraping 90-minute breakdown, but she does it with a startling intensity that thrusts her into the emotional core of every exchange - perfect for the control freak she’s playing. Davis sometimes unnecessarily amplifies Annette’s brittleness, but she’s largely grand as the business queen determined to rule by common sense.
She doesn't know, but is destined to discover, that that quality has no place here. Her slow melt into peasantry is assured once she gives into her inner demons. That God of Carnage gets so much unexpected mileage from her and the others' descent into disarray is what makes it so corrosively comic. It's also why Annette's climactic declaration, the third and final of its type, "It's the worst day of my life as well," packs the wallop it does: The classiest classes, like the rest of us, never realize until it's too late that they've become exactly the savages they once professed to abhor.