NEW YORK—Age, maturity, and wisdom doesn't always stop man (or woman) from sliding down to become a biting, clawing animal when push comes to shove, as brilliantly shown in Yasmina Reza's comedy God of Carnage.
In present day suburbia, well-to-do parents Alan and Annette Raleigh (Jeff Daniels, Hope Davis) arrive at the home of Michael and Veronica Vallon (James Gandolfini, Marcia Gay Harden) to discuss an incident involving their respective children. It seems Alan and Annette's son Benjamin got into a fight with Henry, the Vallon's boy. The fight ended with Benjamin hitting Henry in the mouth with a stick, knocking out two of his teeth.
The parents have now gotten together, sans lawyers, to calmly arrive at a solution to the problem. While all agree Benjamin should be made to apologize, problems begin to materialize when the adults try to discuss the exact nature of the apology and what, if any, punishment he should receive.
Alan, for example, sees Benjamin as a thug, but is more than willing to file away the incident under the heading "boys will be boys," something Michael, who comes from a working-class background, can certainly relate to. Annette meanwhile, feels her son is misunderstood and they need to reach out to him. As for Veronica, she wants the matter handled swiftly and decisively, as she fears improperly dealing with it will lead to feelings of anger and discontent, which could very well manifest themselves violently later.
As the four argue over what each thinks is the correct way to handle the problem, their baser personalities begin to emerge. Soon the group is engaging in completely over-the-top verbal and physical jousting, leading to a hilarious (and very frenetic) breakdown of the social rules adults are supposedly trained to follow.
While the actions of the adults (yelling, screaming, throwing things at one another, not to mention some unexpected physical contact) are all quite funny, the underlying motives and reactions are in actuality rather tragic. The play succeeds in bringing its message across: what people are really like underneath. The play makes the point not only through major actions, but also through smaller ones, such as Alan going to get a glass of rum when he should be consoling his wife, or Veronica’s concern over their out of print art books, left on the table for all to see. It's in these moments one sees the inner workings of the characters.
High marks must go to Christopher Hampton for delivering a wonderful translation of the Reza text, as well as to director Matthew Warchus. Warchus not only keeps the story moving nicely (using, in some cases, awkward pauses to reveal the unease of all involved), but also helps the actors to bring out the foibles, insecurity, and emotional makeup of the characters, making all the performances fascinating to watch.
Daniels is good as Alan, the stereotypical "hot shot" lawyer, always on his cell phone, trying to deal with an emergency elsewhere. This is a guy who is always on top of his game and in control of the situation, as long as he can always blend into the background. He also gets to engage in some unexpected male bonding with Gandolfini.
Gandolfini winningly plays a working-class man, one who disdains the upper-crust airs he and his wife have assumed in order to make the Raleigh's feel at home. (Although Veronica may take some hidden delight in showing off for them.) However, Gandolfini, mindful of his own struggles with bullies as a kid, shows just exactly where his character comes from.
Mark Thompson's set also fits into this mold, showing the Vallon’s living room as just a tad overdone with a little too much stuff scattered about—elements of a couple, perhaps, trying to appear a little more than they really are.
Interestingly, it's the women who become the most physical and crude. Annette keeps trying to find a calm solution to the situation, at least until she also succumbs to the madness seemingly affecting everybody. (A nice job by Davis, who undergoes some major physical actions and reactions.)
Meanwhile, Hardin, in what amounts to a one-woman tour de force, has a literal meltdown before audience eyes. In a process that causes more than a few roars of laughter, she literally transforms from a calm, superior-sounding type to a shouting extremist, one determined to get her point across by screaming the loudest, even if she's long since forgotten what that point actually is.
Perhaps the biggest question is that when all is said and done, have those involved (either the unseen children of the two families or the adults themselves) really learned anything from their encounters? One can hope so, but while the play may illustrate people's darker instincts for all to see, whether anyone can actually change these feelings, rather than simply mask them, is another question entirely—definitely something to think about.
God of Carnage
Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre
242 West 45th Street
Tickets: 212-239-6200 or www.telecharge.com
Running Time: 90 minutes
Judd Hollander is the New York correspondent for the London publication The Stage.