Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Theater review: 'God of Carnage' a clever look at adults behaving badly

From left: Marcia Gay Harden, Hope Davis,
Jeff Daniels and James Gandolfini in God of Carnage.

By Hap Erstein

Editor's note: This is one of several reviews ArtsPaper theater critic Hap Erstein will provide in the coming weeks about the current New York theater season.

NEW YORK -- Playwright Yasmina Reza knows about pulling a single thread until the entire social fabric is in disarray. That is precisely what she had three longtime male friends do over the purchase by one of them of a pretentious, though minimalist, white painting in her 1998 Tony Award-winning play Art.

And now the French writer is up to similar cunning tricks, pitting two terribly civilized sets of parents against each other in her latest comedy of bad manners, God of Carnage, playing at New York‘s Jacobs Theatre.

Call it Art on steroids. For the four characters meet over coffee and a precious pastry called clafoutis to calmly and rationally consider the consequences of a playground altercation between their two sons. But before they are done, vases of tulips will fly about, the upscale living room locale will resemble a wrestling pit and one of the quartet will let fly with the best projectile vomiting ever perpetrated on a Broadway stage. (Is there a Tony category for that?)

If that hurling coup de theatre does not entice you to make a pilgrimage to God of Carnage, go instead for the clever, increasingly manic writing by Reza, translated and transported from Paris to gentrified Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, by Christopher Hampton. And while the compact one-set, four-character, 95-minute-long play is bound to have many subsequent productions, it is hard to imagine a better cast than Marcia Gay Harden and James Gandolfini as the hosting Novaks and Hope Davis and Jeff Daniels as the visiting team, the Raleighs.

Veronica (Harden), a woman devoted to art and humanitarian causes, begins solicitously trying to reconstruct the events that led the Raleighs’ 11-year-old son to take a stick to their classmate son’s face, leaving him without two of his teeth. Instead of reparations, she is after some acknowledgement of the boy’s social breach. And if she has to lower herself to savagery to make her point, so be it.

Her husband Michael (Gandolfini), a purveyor of wholesale bathroom fixtures, is supportive of Veronica’s genteel inquisition, but only up to a point. The character takes passivity to new extremes, but the Sopranos star with minimal stage credits shows he can express volumes with a shrug or a glance.

Alan (Daniels) is a lawyer, permanently attached at the ear to his cellphone, more concerned about mustering damage control for his pharmaceutical company client, whose drug is causing calamitous side effects, than he is about this parental powwow that he has been dragged to against his will. As depictions of type-A lawyers go, Alan is largely a cartoon, but an amusing one. His wife Annette (Davis), a wealth management specialist, at first seems apologetic for Alan’s distracted indifference, but she too will soon be drawn into the combative fray.

Whether intentional of now, it is hard for God of Carnage not to bring to mind Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Although far shorter and more overtly comic, the two couples draw no less blood during their evening’s confrontation.

All of this is orchestrated deftly by director Matthew Warchus, who did the same for Art and other Reza scripts. He pulls four bravura performances from his cast members, initially restrained but soon unbridled in their savagery.

One need not be a parent to identify with these adult children or, more likely, coming away from God of Carnage thinking that you know people just like them.

GOD OF CARNAGE, Jacobs Theatre, 242 W. 45th St., New York. Tickets: $66.50-$116.50. Call: (212) 239-6200 or (800) 432-7250.

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