Snarling comedy about social graces devolves into a more primal state of belligerent self-interest.
There’s a new crew of urban gladiators squaring off over the clafouti and rum in “God of Carnage,” but the sharpest weapon in playwright Yasmina Reza’s arsenal remains Matthew Warchus’ diabolical production. The original cast of this snarling comedy about social graces devolving into the more primal state of belligerent self-interest was a tough act to follow. So do audiences who saw them need to inspect the fresh recruits? Possibly not. But for those unable to score tickets during the mostly sold-out eight-month run, this undignified spectacle is most definitely still worth experiencing.
In the play’s New York premiere, deftly relocated by translator Christopher Hampton to a well-heeled Brooklyn neighborhood from its original setting in the Paris suburbs, Marcia Gay Harden, Hope Davis, Jeff Daniels and James Gandolfini left bloody teeth marks on their roles. All four scored Tony nominations in lead acting races, with Harden’s win adding to top play and direction honors.
As for the replacement cast, the production ushers Christine Lahti into a juicy role that ends almost 20 years’ absence from the Broadway stage and provides lip-smacking opportunities for Annie Potts and Jimmy Smits to play against type with characters far thornier than their tidy surfaces might indicate. But the most invaluable addition is British actor Ken Stott, who reprises his role from the play’s 2008 London production with virulent new textures.
The setup is a determinedly civilized meeting between two couples whose sons have been engaged in a playground dispute. With smiling forbearance and more than a hint of sanctimoniousness, controlling Veronica (Lahti) runs the negotiations while husband Michael (Stott) does a passable imitation of an affable host. Veronica doesn’t seek financial reparation but she would like a little atonement for her son’s missing incisors.
Annette (Potts) and Alan (Smits) appear respectively embarrassed and rankled to be held accountable for their son’s aggressive behavior. But those attitudes, along with the group’s general composure, are in constant flux through the one-act play’s 85 minutes of tense real time.
In ways that fuel the abrasive dynamic, Stott’s character (previously played by Gandolfini) is the odd man out from the start. This is a group defined as much by the self-satisfied sheen of their professional identities as their personal styles: Veronica is an art expert with a book on Darfur coming out; Annette is in wealth management; Alan is a corporate lawyer. Michael, however, is a wholesaler of household goods, from pots and pans to bathroom fixtures. So despite his nods to refinement, he has a down-to-earth, nuts-and-bolts manner that makes him the first one to drop the pretense and to step up when things get messy.
“I am not a member of polite society,” bellows Michael. “What I am and always have been is a fucking Neanderthal.”
He’s most at ease in the John Wayne/Spartacus school of conflict resolution, so it’s only a matter of time before the strained laughter that disguises Michael and Veronica’s mutual annoyance dissolves into open hostility, despite her efforts to maintain a cordial front. When the bile rises up in him, Stott’s face and body seem by turns drained of and charged with life, chafing bitterly against the constraints of etiquette.
The performance is simultaneously hilarious and sad, enraged and exhausted, galvanizing the rest of the cast along with it.
Lahti softens her extremely unrelaxed character with an appealing relaxed quality, allowing glimpses of mortified self-awareness to show through her rigid shell. “Objects can become ridiculously important; half the time, you can’t even remember why,” she mutters with humiliated honesty after overreacting when her ostentatiously displayed art books are damaged.
Pushing a fraction too hard at first, Potts and Smits become more persuasive as the gloves come off.
The frazzled warmth of Potts’ screen persona nicely offsets the brittleness that surfaces when Annette stops being the accommodating mediator and starts unleashing her defensive inner shrew. Smits also comes with an approachable, earnest quality inbuilt from previous roles, so the irredeemable Alan — unapologetic protector of oppressed pharmaceutical giants — represents a bracing shift. He lacks the subtleties of equal-opportunity disgust that Daniels brought to the role, but like Potts, he comes alive when Alan’s contempt gets to flow freely.
The barbaric soul of supposedly civilized society is hardly unexplored territory; ditto the ugly underside of marriage. And Reza’s play reveals itself at first exposure, so it doesn’t offer up much additional nuance on second viewing. But Hampton’s astringent dialogue is full of flavor, and the four characterizations have been honed into a deliciously combustible brew. Best of all is the unfaltering timing, the hard-edged focus and gleaming danger brought to the skirmish by director Warchus, who makes a tart social commentary into a scintillating clash.