Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - March 15, 2010
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: Dylan Baker, Jeff Daniels, Lucy Liu, and Janet McTeer.
Almost. Let's face it: Hope Davis, Jeff Daniels, James Gandolfini, and Marcia Gay Harden were both a box-office dream and highly capable of doing the peerlessly coordinated work demanded as two sets of parents meeting to discuss their boys' violent tendencies to accidentally bring about the end of civilization. But they were, ultimately, playing an event. The first replacements, Christine Lahti, Annie Potts, Jimmy Smits, and Ken Stott, played the play; this reduced the flashiness (by a lot), but increased the stakes and resulted in a production that was technically truer to the text but all around less titanic.
You can tell right away, too, before any dialogue is uttered. Michael and Veronica Novack (Daniels - yes, in the role he didn't create - and McTeer) are seated across a Grand Canyon coffee-table divide from Alan and Annette Raleigh (Baker and Liu), looking far more oppressively dark than we've seen before. Alan's deep-gray jacket all but bleeds into his ever-furrowed brow, Liu's crisp navy suit emerges from her lengthy black hair as though it's inner armor making an appearance when it's most needed. Daniels's open black collar and McTeer's restrictive fish-net stockings give them the look, more than these characters have ever had, that the Novacks are desperate to look better than they think they are.
Which is, of course, the point. Once the accusations, pillows, tulips, and clafouti start hurling, there's no longer a difference between the upper (corporate lawyer Alan and "wealth manager" Annette) and lower-middle (Michael claims to sell household goods, Veronica is an author and bookstore saleswoman) classes. What begins as a discussion about how Alan and Annette should deal with their son pummeling Michael and Veronica's with a stick rapidly becomes an all-out brawl to control the very nature of propriety in the world. It's a battle that, once initiated, must run its course, and can't leave any of its participants unscarred.
That's what's most different this time around. The couples were obviously at war before the curtain went up, with words and disapproving glances and whatever else defining their relationship long before we meet them. So many blood-curdling silences occur even within the chummiest exchanges in the opening minutes that you instantly know that nothing anyone says about anything may be taken at face value. So each character becomes defined solely by the impact he or she has on the other three, which only pushes everyone to dizzying new heights of combative cluelessness - and the cast to comic perfection.
Neither Daniels nor Smits ever manned Alan's cell phone the way Baker does, withdrawing it from his pocket and putting it to his ear in the smoothest of motions, and then dominating each conversation on it with bulldozer authority. You believe, without question, that it's his one true devotion, which makes his constant callousness toward his wife, son, and especially the interfering Novacks unsettlingly devious. Baker so launches himself into the flies with all that device allows him that Alan's eventual and total crash is disarmingly devastating.
McTeer, who starred in the play's original London production, is a marvel as Veronica. Towering over the actors, both physically and emotionally, McTeer is always playing a volcano on the verge. Whether she lets off tiny wisps of steam - her barely breathed demand for a drink of rum could replace six week of college classes for aspiring actors - or unleashes torrents of lava (primarily against her blood enemy, Alan), her Veronica is an implosive control freak in the most vivid possible sense. Her attempts to consume everyone and everything in her path are equally engrossing (and uproarious) whether she succeeds or fails.
The biggest surprise of all may be Daniels. Convincing as he was as Alan, he's exploded to a new level as Michael. Though he begins as the good cop to McTeer's bad one, his eroding sense of decency compellingly devolving him into a full Neanderthal, leaving him ripping his shirt from his waistband and stalking about brandishing liquor bottles like clubs. Yet he takes such pleasure in it that you can't fault him his regression - you feel it's the first time you're really seeing who Michael is, and Daniels's is the most realistic and rewarding transformation of any that yet occurred in any New York God of Carnage company.
Only Liu seems out of her depth: Her Annette is too flighty, too eager to please to give her a place to go once everyone has to stop relying on the daily tricks they use to survive society. She has one choice moment, when she throws off her own jacket and dances in primitive joy like a native tribeswoman thanking her gods for some theretofore unimagined freedom. (This is a moment that never registered as deeply with Davis or Potts, but now feels absolutely essential.) Most of the rest of the time, however, Liu gets lost in her costars' more substantial shadows, and struggles to make herself heard (in more ways than one).
But maybe that's okay. Maybe God of Carnage needs that minuscule morsel of Everyman or Everywoman inadequacy, so you can better appreciate everyone's fast-track course from nuclear family to nuclear meltdown. Regardless, that minor flaw doesn't make even the barest dent in a play that's living its third and, in many ways, its most electric life.