It's always handy to have a presiding deity to set the tone and take the blame, and in Yasmina Reza's knockout of a new play, God of Carnage, we're in luck: the God of Carnage who has "ruled since the dawn of time" continues His impressive work unto this day.
Reza's venomous play, billed as "a comedy of manners without the manners," gives us plenty of laughs— the kind that go with eyebrows up and eyes widened in disbelief, the kind of laughter that's about five seconds from just totally losing it. The Lord of Misrule is in fine form, as is a cast that nails every line, every look, every gesture.
Two couples sit in a living room. The natural stone wall, the glass coffee table covered with art books, the offers of coffee and dessert suggest a well-maintained civilized façade. Behind them is an enormous wall and ceiling in blood red. Alan (Jeff Daniels) and his wife Annette (Hope Davis) have come to talk to Michael (James Gandolfini) and Veronica (Marcia Gay Harden) because their 11-year-old sons had a fight at the playground. One boy bashed the other boy with a stick, and broke two teeth. Two teeth are the least of it by play's end.
Satire without caricature
Alan is an arrogant lawyer who believes "Life is second rate." His chilly wife works in "in wealth management." Michael, the first to reveal the "Neanderthal" beneath his suit, owns a hardware company, while his wife, the sanctimonious humanitarian Veronica, studies African art. Everyone wears black. The affluent bourgeois world is evoked and satirized but, remarkably, never caricatured.
There will be glaring and shouting and puking and pummeling and shredding of tulips and drowning of cell phones, all directed by Matthew Warchus with razor-sharp timing. Husbands will challenge each other's manhood, wives will challenge each other's motherhood, then alliances will shift along gender lines, with men facing off against women. Accusations of "inertia and repulsive nihilism" provoke comebacks like, "Every word that comes out of your mouth is destroying me."
This is marital ferocity both hilarious and terrifying— the next generation of Albee's George and Martha. As Reza observed (in the program notes), "It's not sad comedy. It's funny tragedy."
In ruthless defense of Big Pharma
Reza, who is French, is best known for her huge hit, Art, and this new play has won acclaim in both Paris and London. Christopher Hampton's translation of God of Carnage is perfectly Americanized and succeeds as both a substantial indictment of our sociopolitical delusions— from the book Veronica is writing about Darfur to Alan's ruthless legalistic defense of Big Pharma— to the general idea that civility is possible. A nifty self-reflexive moment occurs when Gandolfini (late of "The Sopranos"), as Michael remembering his own boyhood, says, "I had a gang once."
The discussion-turned-indictment-turned-brawl is punctuated by phone calls. Alan learns that one of his clients' drugs has been revealed to be toxic, and his rude cell phone conversations constitute a study both in bullying and immorality. In between, Michael's mother keeps phoning with her own medical reports.
There are tiny shocking moments: Veronica asks Annette if they have other children; as Annette shakes her head no, Alan answers yes. And Michael's story of the hamster is sufficiently bizarre to rival Jerry's "The Story of the Dog" in Albee's Zoo Story.
The "art of coexistence" turns out to be a pretense, like everything else these characters tell themselves they believe in— one of many consolatory delusions that God of Carnage strips away in 90 fierce minutes.