Never underestimate the pleasure of watching really good actors behaving terribly. Of course you can experience such a spectacle every year around Oscar time. But there is a more sophisticated version of this spectator sport, in which highly skilled stage performers take on roles that allow them to rip the stuffing out of one another, tear up the scenery, stomp on their own vanity and have the time of their lives.
That’s what Jeff Daniels, Hope Davis, James Gandolfini and Marcia Gay Harden are up to at the Bernard Jacobs Theater, where Yasmina Reza’s “God of Carnage” opened Sunday night under the extremely savvy direction of Matthew Warchus. And their performances in Ms. Reza’s streamlined anatomy of the human animal incite the kind of laughter that comes from the gut, as involuntary as hiccups or belching.
Examined coldly, this 90-minute play about two couples who meet to discuss a playground fight between two of their children isn’t much more than a sustained Punch and Judy show, dressed to impress with sociological accessories. But there’s a reason that Punch and Judy’s avatars have fascinated audiences for so many centuries in cultural forms low (“The Honeymooners” of 1950s television) and high (Edward Albee’s 1962 drama “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”).
“God of Carnage,” which is poised somewhere in between, definitely delivers the cathartic release of watching other people’s marriages go boom. A study in the tension between civilized surface and savage instinct, this play (which recently won the Olivier Award in London for best new comedy) is itself a satisfyingly primitive entertainment with an intellectual veneer.
As she did in “Life x 3” (seen on Broadway in 2003) and her Tony-winning “Art” (1998), Ms. Reza walks a comfortable middle ground between high and low, pretending to fathom depths when she’s really just stirring them with her finger. As with those earlier plays “God of Carnage” follows the formula (think of it as slapstick with a slide rule) of taking three or four smug, upper-middle-class characters and stripping them, with algebraic precision, to their lonely, frightened ids. In this instance farce trumps formula, and “God of Carnage” is the richer for it.
Ms. Reza’s subjects are two sets of parents in the Cobble Hill neighborhood of Brooklyn. (The excellent and easygoing translation from French by the playwright Christopher Hampton, Ms. Reza’s frequent collaborator, has been Americanized for stateside audiences.) Alan (Mr. Daniels), a corporate lawyer, and Annette (Ms. Davis), a “wealth manager,” visit the apartment of Michael (Mr. Gandolfini), a wholesaler, and Veronica (Ms. Harden), a writer, to discuss how best to deal with a common problem.
Alan and Annette’s son has hit Michael and Veronica’s son with a stick, breaking two of his teeth. The grown-ups have gathered to discuss, logically and amiably, how to deal with the boys. “Fortunately,” says Veronica, the loftiest-minded of the lot, “there is still such a thing as the art of coexistence, isn’t there?”
Of course there’s not. Fissures in the friendliness are evident from the get-go, as the couples sip espresso, sample Veronica’s clafouti and ooh and ah over art books. The question is how long before the fault lines split open altogether, allowing free rein to “the god of carnage,” whom Alan, an executive shark type, admits proudly to believing in. We are all controlled by our viscera, the play says, and it makes good on the theory early when (be warned) an anxious Annette vomits all over the coffee table (and all those precious books).
Ms. Reza links the spouses’ degeneration to a larger picture of a feral dog-eat-dog world. The cellphone calls that Alan keeps taking without apology have to do with damage control for a pharmaceutical giant’s wonder drug that has turned into a problem drug. Veronica is a specialist in African culture and writing a book on “the Darfur tragedy.”
But the play is far more interesting (and subtle) in its shifting ballet of emotions and loyalties among its fractious quartet. As rum replaces coffee and outer garments are removed, sides of combat blur. The men gang up on the women, the women gang up on the men, and the husbands and wives wind up, briefly, changing partners (though only as allies in war).
The play begins with the characters regarding their spouses as guaranteed confederates, and it ends with all of them realizing that they’re on their own. At the same time there are throughout enough instances of small acts of helpfulness and kindness to keep the play from being a blunt broadside. “People struggle until they’re dead,” Alan observes. And to its credit, “God of Carnage” sees that struggle as more than exclusively hostile.
Still, on the page the play doesn’t amount to much. It needs the fine-honed idiosyncrasies and unconditional commitment to unsympathetic characters that the actors here provide. They’re a marvelously giving, balanced ensemble. And each has bits of inspired invention that you tuck away into your memory file of classic stage moments: Mr. Gandolfini, in his first Broadway performance since he found fame as Tony Soprano, ingenuously defending cruelty to a pet hamster or conscientiously holding a blow dryer to damaged art books; Ms. Harden solemnly wrestling for control of the rum bottle; Ms. Davis’s nausea-prone character toting a plastic basin like a worried toddler; and Mr. Daniels obliviously shoveling down clafouti while talking on the phone.
But give full credit to Mr. Warchus, who staged Ms. Reza’s “Art” and “Life x 3” on Broadway and knows that words are to physical comedy what step-by-step drawings of footprints are to dancing. It’s the bodies in motion that count. Mr. Warchus is the man who transformed the sniggering 1960s sex comedy “Boeing-Boeing” into one of last season’s great delights on Broadway, and I can’t think of another working director who better understands the higher mathematics of farce.
Working with the designers Mark Thompson (set and costumes) and Hugh Vanstone (lighting), Mr. Warchus has created an eloquent blend of the chthonic (blood-red background, cracked-mud walls) and the civilized (minimalist furniture, exquisite vases of tulips). The show’s very look predicts what’s going to happen, and you can imagine where those tulips will wind up.
What you can’t imagine is the artful course that Mr. Warchus and his performers take. “God of Carnage” may be a familiar comic journey from A to B, but it travels first class.
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."