I’m not sure what to tell you about God of Carnage because the primary criticism I would level at it is so self-evidently the point of the experience that it’s a little bit like criticizing a dog for walking on all fours.
The new play by French playwright Yazmina Reza, translated and Americanized by UK playwright Christopher Hampton, directed by Matthew Warchus—the team behind the wonderful Art—is about a meeting between two sets of parents. The young son of Alan (Jeff Daniels) and Annette (Hope Davis) has hit the son of Michael (James Gandolfini) and Veronica (Marcia Gay Hardin) with a stick, causing him to need some dental work. So the couples meet—Alan and Annette in Michael and Veronica’s living room—to discuss the matter and settle up so that both financial debts and social graces are acknowledged. It’s all about resolving conflicts in a civilized fashion, isn’t it?
And of course it all has to devolve, doesn’t it? From the first utterance of a slightly judgmental phrase and the “What’s that supposed to mean?” it elicits, you can just tell (if the concept alone hadn’t been your gimme) that the image at the close will be far less tidy than the image at the start.
Ms. Reza is smart enough not to make the class distinctions too overt or too neat. Though Alan is a sharkish corporate lawyer and Annette a wealth manager, the wife resents her husband’s omnipresent cell phone. And while Veronica is an author and historian, her husband Michael is a wholesaler of bathroom supplies, pretty much a blue collar guy in a white collar shirt. So it’s not only the battle lines between couples we’re going to observe, but the less overt battle lines among couples that will also be crossed, as loyalties shift, tempers flare and assiduous manners degenerate into farce. (In fact, as I write this, it occurs to me that God of Carnage is very much in the vernacular of Alan Ayckbourn’s best comedies about social and familial breakdown, if not as artfully subtle in construction.)
And there’s my carp, if indeed carp it be: that God of Carnage, by nature of its very setup, can go only one way, and then unabashedly and with abandon goes there. And everything about it tells you it shall, from the title, to the opening tableau of forced civility to the show logo, a child’s line drawing of a flattened kid.
So the consideration, beyond whether that inevitability intrigues or disinterests you, is how well it goes there. And in that regard, this Broadway iteration is about as high octane as it gets. Between the director’s gift for comedy and the commitment of the actors to play it for real stakes, not a shred of “giveaway” that they’re doing comedy, save impeccable verbal and physical timing, the clear mechanism of God of Carnage is camouflaged just enough that it’s never dull, and you can revel in subtle touches—at which Mr. Gandolfini in particular, seems adept, as he humors the visitors, humors his wife, and slowly loses the veneer that shields a man secretly terrified he’s out of his social depth.
God of Carnage is no match for Art…but unlike Life x 3, The Unexpected Man and A Spanish Play, others of Ms. Reza’s work seen in NYC, it’s no so far a cry removed as to seem conspicuously inferior. Where Art was brilliant, even dazzling, and original, God of Carnage is only very good at the particular, somewhat familiar game it chooses to play.
But give it this much at a minimum: the packaging is clearly labeled…