With all the anger in the air in these dark days for the nation, there’s a certain schadenfreude in watching Yasmina Reza’s acid-dipped takedown of smug self-interest in “God of Carnage.” Examining how the straitjacket of civilized society can barely contain the primitive beast within, the fanged comedy picks an easy target in the complacent bourgeoisie. But the savagery of its dissection of interpersonal politics — marital, sexual and civic — is played to perfection by a scorching cast in Matthew Warchus’ pungent production.
Mark Thompson’s living-room set is the epitome of middle-class style — spacious and comfortable, with a coffee table groaning under the weight of art and anthropology tomes, and matching vases stuffed with white tulips to strike just the right note of casual fuss. But something is a little off. If the cracked stone wall that barely provides any cocoon from the blood-red shadows beyond isn’t indication enough, then the careful distance between the couple at opposite ends of the sofa says plenty.
Borrowing from “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” the play serves up several rounds of “Get the Guests” and “Humiliate the Hosts,” degenerating from cordial negotiations to verbal and physical abuse via the lubricating effects of a bottle of rum.
The occasion is an entente meeting arranged by Veronica (Marcia Gay Harden) and Michael Novak (James Galdolfini) with new acquaintances Annette (Hope Davis) and Alan Raleigh (Jeff Daniels) in order to settle a playground dispute between their respective kids. The Raleighs’ 11-year-old son struck the Novaks’ boy in the face with a stick, knocking out two incisors and exposing a nerve.
But financial reparations are not the object. Insurance will take care of that. What Veronica wants — and goes about pursuing with passive-aggressive politeness that spirals into dogged hysteria — is to oversee a peace agreement. What she really wants is control, which slips out of her fingers and everyone else’s as the bruising evening wears on and a settlement proves elusive.
Aided by regular translator Christopher Hampton, Reza has crafted tantalizing blueprints for four distinct characters to be fleshed out by a quartet of resourceful actors.
Veronica is a study in contrived sophistication, sanctimoniously touting her dedication to art and humanitarian causes: “I have a book coming out in January on the Darfur tragedy.” Michael is a wholesaler of bathroom fixtures, providing a hint that his clafouti-loving refinements are more for his wife’s sake than his own. Obliging to a fault and frequently mortified by her husband’s rudeness, Annette is in wealth management, while Alan is a lawyer permanently attached to his cell phone, barking instructions concerning a case against his client, a pharmaceuticals giant peddling beta-blockers with unfortunate side-effects.
All four characters could easily have tipped over into grotesque loathsomeness, but Warchus and his impeccable ensemble make them just pretentious, unfeeling and self-absorbed enough to get under the skin while still sharing traits with most moderately well-heeled New Yorkers. (The French play adapts smoothly to a U.S. setting.)
At first it feels uncomfortable listening in on the awkward exchanges of this borderline-unpleasant group. But as the gloves come off and Hampton’s dialogue grows spikier, the play becomes steadily more compelling. Reza painstakingly maps out the disintegration of social niceties as the two couples descend into sloppy behavior and vileness — with continual shuffling of alliances between men, women, husbands and wives — but the actors maintain a roller-coaster element of juicy spontaneity.
Davis deserves a prize for conserving her dignity while spending much of the play puking (a very funny nod to Honey in “Virginia Woolf”), but all four actors are in peak form, finding mischief in the gradual peeling back of their cultivated exteriors to reveal the neanderthal, the selfish pig, the self-righteous hypocrite or the shrieking bitch within. Observations on how women will reject stereotypes of themselves but embrace those pertaining to men are particularly amusing.
From verbal zingers to sly physical humor, the timing is superb. Gandolfini’s “Sopranos” persona plays nicely against his initial manner and then pushes the transformation up another notch when he drops the pretense. The glowering, in-your-face look Michael shoots Veronica while crossing the room is hilarious, as is his unapologetic confession of a symbolic episode regarding the “liberation” of their daughter’s pet hamster. And Daniels, whose behavior is the least decorous to begin with, hits a bull’s-eye as the most openly contemptuous character, crumbling when Annette’s meltdown results in the loss of his phone.
Both women have moments of banshee-like bravura, and Davis aces a tasty monologue about men and their gadgets. But Harden has the meatiest role, if only because of Veronica’s refusal to relinquish command and the vast reservoir of rage simmering beneath her smooth surface. She also gets the play’s sobering, all-but-final word, shifting the tone when she’s forced to set aside her frustration and deep-rooted unhappiness and return to duty. There’s no peace and no lasting power, only numbness.
Like its title, “God of Carnage” is not always the subtlest play; it doesn’t go deep and it’s not without its repetitive passages. But it’s elegant, acerbic and entertainingly fueled on pure bile. It’s Reza’s sharpest work since “Art.”