“Let the battle begin” could be the thematic war cry for the new comedy, God of Carnage, by playwright Yasmina Reza. What starts off as a convivial meeting between two couples to discuss the thwacking one son gave the other with a stick on the playground, breaking a couple of teeth, very quickly degenerates into a verbal and physical joust among the four protagonists.
The quartet of actors are marvelous, even though James Gandolfini, portraying a dealer in wholesale plumbing fixtures, is not in the same acting league as the other three—Hope Davis, a ‘wealth manager;’ Jeff Daniels, her obnoxious, mannerless, overbearing corporate lawyer husband; and Marcia Gay Harden, a writer. The latter three put on an acting clinic as the onstage tensions slowly mount and the civility fault lines begin to crack. The fun of God of Carnage is watching, sometimes in mock horror, the utter breakdown of courteousness and gentility of the characters. Yasmina Reza’s purpose is not simply to entertain, but to also poke holes into the pretentious lives of the upper middle class. As she demonstrated with her Tony Award winning show, Art, Reza’s meditations provide an opportunity for reflection as well as a rollicking good time.
Actors Daniels, Davis and Harden are all so good it would almost be unfair to single out any one performance. However, Marcia Gay Harden is the catalyst for setting the other players in motion. Her unconditional surrender to the role of Veronica allows her to bring forth a roller coaster ride of emotions and acting pyrotechnics. I was drained after watching her through the 90 minute, intermissionless production. I don’t know how she can muster the energy, twice a week, for a matinee and evening performance.
Director Matthew Warchus also deserves kudos for nurturing the action on stage, from a simmering boil to a pressure cooker explosion. He artfully choreographs the little skirmishes and all-out warfare, allowing the actors, from time to time, to rest like caged animals, licking their wounds, panting, and pondering their next plan of attack.
My only quibble with the show was its conclusion which, after a high octane joy ride, ends too abruptly, like coming down from a fabulous sugar high. Then, again, what is the best way to scale back from open warfare? God of Carnage, on Broadway at the Bernard B. Jacobs theatre on West 45th Street.