The international success of Yasmina Reza’s “Art” might suggest that the poised, polished dialogue of her plays is fail-safe. Far from it. You wouldn’t want to watch a production of the French playwright’s work that allowed her typically portentous undertow to flood the gleamingly witty surface. Happily, “The God of Carnage” — easily Reza’s best since “Art” — is in the expert hands of director Matthew Warchus and a blistering cast. Together they turn the sociological satire into a guiltily pleasurable knife-edge balance between laughter and slaughter.
The setup is simple. Veronique (Janet McTeer) and Michel (Ken Stott) have invited Alain (Ralph Fiennes) and Annette (Tamsin Greig) to their chic home in order to come to a polite agreement over the tricky matter of a fight between their 11-year-old sons. Veronique and Michel’s son Bruno lost two teeth when the other boy hit him with a stick. Of course, it’s all frightfully awkward for two such smartly professional couples, but everyone is determined to be civilized about this.
Reza sets everyone up with a dominant tone. McTeer’s bright-eyed Veronique runs the meeting with an ever-so-slightly patronizing smile, while her husband plays along benignly. Greig’s Annette is embarrassed by her son’s behavior and cowed by her lawyer husband Alain who, as Fiennes makes abundantly clear, can’t see what the fuss is all about and says the insurance will handle it.
But with nasty questions of blame surfacing — not to mention Alain’s incessant interruptions as he barks instructions on his mobile phone to a drug company he’s defending — cracks in the uneasy peace turn into giant fissures. The hypocritical tone between them plummets irrevocably from polite to snide and snarling. Apologies and reconciliation were in the cards, but before long, it’s open warfare.
The savagely entertaining result starts out feeling like a round of “Get the Guests” from “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” But with everyone so unexpectedly switching sides — women ganging up on the men, husbands teaming up with the other’s wives — it’s closer to “Closer” minus the sex.
Christopher Hampton, translator of all of Reza’s plays for London, works like a top-flight lyricist. The roars of laughter that greet the viciousness are all in the timing. Holding tenaciously to the sense of a line, Hampton is willing to forsake a French construction in favor of a dramatically effective English rhythm to land a zinging one-liner.
Mark Thompson’s all-red set positively glows with confidence, a hallmark of Warchus’ immaculate production. Every moment, every look is minutely calibrated and the stage business is masterly — Greig’s maniacal attack on her husband’s mobile brings the house down. Indeed, it’s a tribute to the show’s bravura pacing that even a West End power cut on opening night, which halted proceedings for 10 minutes, couldn’t staunch the flow of vitriolic energy.
Indeed, only after the play is over does it dawn on you that Reza’s anthropological underpinnings, made manifest in the overstated title, don’t really hold up. Just as “Art” was actually about male friendship, this play isn’t about parenting; it’s really a dissection of the horrors of marriage and so-called civilized behavior.
Yet Reza’s ideas about man’s savagery are more than a little contrived. And the crucial details of the children’s fisticuffs are dropped in favor of a philosophical fight in a manner both irritatingly imperious and highly convenient. With comic teamwork this scintillating, however, doubts about the satire’s pretensions are swept aside.