March 25, 2009

A Shout Out of Praise for "God of Carnage"

The French playwright Yasmina Reza’s popular plays follow a similar recipe: Take a trio or quartet of urbane but insecure people; steep them in a socially volatile situation; season liberally with piquant one-liners; add alcohol; simmer until confusions and confessions overflow.

The result is usually more soufflé than stew, but it’s yummy and, in its own way, quite satisfying. Reza’s 1994 play Art is currently the most produced contemporary play in the world, according to a recent profile of Reza in The New Yorker (click here to read it). And her latest, God of Carnage, which opened at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre on Sunday night, is not only lip-smackingly good but laugh-out-loud funny.

I usually tend to keep my feelings to myself when I’m watching a play but God of Carnage touched some atavistic spot in me and there were several times when I literally threw my head back and howled as I watched James Gandolfini,
Hope Davis, Marcia Gay Harden and Jeff Daniels cavort as two couples who meet to discuss a playground brawl between their 11 year-old sons that resulted in one kid’s knocking out two teeth of the other. The parents’ meeting starts out civilly and, after some imbibing, ends a lot less so—although not in exactly the way I had predicted.

My laughter might have annoyed the people sitting around me except that all of them, including my friend Ellie, were too busy laughing themselves.
Part of what amuses so many of us about Reza’s plays is the way she jabs right into the bloated main artery of upper middle-class anxieties. God of Carnage takes on helicopter parenthood, do-gooder smugness, unethical corporations, and, of course, compromised marriages.

Most regular theatergoers know people like the characters in her plays and even share some of their preoccupations. What provides at least part of our pleasure is knowing that no matter how ridiculous our foibles may be, they’re no where near as ludicrous as those of the people on stage. Or so we’d like to believe.

Adding to God of Carnage’s merriment are the contributions of Reza’s frequent collaborators the director Matthew Warchus, the reigning master of farce, and the playwright Christopher Hampton, who has translated several of Reza’s works into English from the French in which she writes them. The original production of the play was set in Paris, but Hampton changed the locale to London when the show played there last year (it just won the Olivier for the Best New Comedy of the past London season) and he has now smartly relocated the action to the Cobble Hill section of Brooklyn. (Click here to read an interview he gave the Wall Street Journal about the changes he made.)

Designer Mark Thompson has also worked on Reza’s previous Broadway productions and this time out, he has created a near perfect set that works both literally (a self-consciously aspirational family would live in a place just like this one) and metaphorically (the red carpet and stone wall evoke the exact primal feelings they should; when one of the characters says "I'm a fucking Neanderthal," he means it).

But it’s the actors who make this show a real treat, instead of just a nice trifle. Davis adds a delightfully zany spin to the straight-laced WASPs she usually plays. Daniels is so good that he’s hilarious even when he’s not saying a word. I had worried that Gandolfini, who spent so much of the last decade playing Tony Soprano on TV, wouldn’t be able to hold his own with such heavyweight stage pros. I’m happy to report that I needn’t have worried. He’s totally comfortable on stage and totally terrific. Harden has the juciest role and she squeezes every drop from it. Once again, I wish they gave Tonys for Best Ensemble.

Ellie apparently felt the same way because she was the first to jump out of her seat when the quartet came out for their curtain call. And her good mood continued as we walked over to 46th Street for a drink at Bar Centrale. The NY Post columnist Michael Riedel came in and sat next to us and Ellie started chatting with him. No; she doesn’t know him but that’s the kind of mood she was in. He asked what we’d seen. “The God of Savage,” I answered, not realizing what I’d said until I saw the puzzled expression on his face. We quickly sorted it out. But I wasn’t too far wrong. There’s a reason that jungle music plays at the beginning and end of the show.

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