Hope Davis and James Gandolfini in “God of Carnage” at the Ahmanson Theatre
Photo by Craig Schwartz
God of Carnage
Written by Yasmina Reza
Translated by Christopher Hampton
Directed by Matthew Warchus
Ahmanson Theatre, Los Angeles
April 5-May 29, 2011
(See video short below.)
“God of Carnage” was written by Yasmina Reza, a French woman, but it could just as easily have been the work of Harold Pinter, Tom Stoppard, Edward Albee or Samuel Beckett, all cardinals in the Church of Tragicomedy, also known as “theater of the absurd.” As one of Beckett’s characters in his play, “Endgame,” notes: “Nothing is funnier than unhappiness; it’s the most comical thing in the world.”
Reza’s four players in Carnage—Alan Raleigh (Jeff Daniels), Anette Raleigh (Hope Davis), Veronica Novak (Marcia Gay Harden) and Michael Novak (James Gandolfini)—are at their funniest at those times when they’re desperately unhappy, whether with their spouse, the other couple or themselves.
The root cause of this funny unfunniness between these two couples is a playground fight between their 11-year-old sons, Benjamin Raleigh and Henry Novak. Benjamin, it seems, has whacked Henry in the face with a stick and Henry, consequently, is now two teeth the poorer for it. The Raleighs have come to the Novak’s apartment to smooth things over but, as often happens in situations like this, every tentative step forward somehow results in two steps backward.
Veronica, a terribly earnest writer whose moral GPS always puts her at the center in the land of political correctness, won’t settle for anything less than an admission of parental guilt from the Raleighs and a heartfelt mea culpa.
Alan, a high-priced lawyer whose ear and cell phone are one and the same thing, just wants out—out of this meeting with the Novaks so he can focus on something that really, really, matters: his most important client…major pharmaceutical firm…blockbuster drug…serious side effects…known for at least two years, suppressed for two years…news on the verge of becoming public. Now, that is a problem worthy of his immediate, undivided attention, not this petty squabble over two boys.
OK, OK, my Benjamin is a savage, Alan concedes; now, please, may I be excused? Not so fast, says Veronica (unwilling to lose this primo opportunity to inform and instruct), your son isn’t a savage but he ought to discuss why he struck Henry.
“He ought to do any number of things,” Alan replies. “He ought to discuss it, he ought to be sorry for it, obviously, you have parenting skills that put us to shame, we hope to improve but in the meantime, please bear with us.”
Annette Raleigh and Michael Novak initially stand off to one side as their spouses skirmish, but are soon conscripted for the conflict, especially when Michael produces a bottle of rum and everyone starts drinking. Before long, it’s every husband, every wife and every combination/permutation of Veronica, Annette, Michael and Alan for himself-herself-themselves. You find yourself wincing even as you’re laughing; it’s that painfully funny.
In the end, the four performers—every one superb—tear down each other’s façade and leave themselves shivering in cold self-awareness. It’s an awareness they would just as soon do without, thank you very much, but Reza won’t allow it. She would have us believe that inside every person there’s a Neanderthal waiting for the chance to rush out from the cave and bash someone with a club.
Indeed, Michael rips off his politesse and tosses it aside like Jerry Seinfeld’s infamous puffy shirt: “My wife passed me off as a liberal but I can’t keep this bullshit up any more. What I am and always have been is a fucking Neanderthal.”
The director, Matthew Warchus, brings out the best in these actors by having them bring out the worst in their characters. Are Veronica’s many protestations of “the soothing power of culture” or the futility “of existence without some kind of moral conception” deeply-rooted perennials or just annuals? Once she’s liquored up, you’ve got to think the latter. Isn’t Alan’s belief in a “god of carnage [who] has ruled, uninterruptedly, since the dawn of time” just a convenient excuse for his detachment from his wife and son? Annette feels that detachment sharply; you have the sense she’d much rather compete with another woman for Alan’s attention than a cellphone.
Despite the ample width of the Ahmanson stage, Mark Thompson’s minimalist set—couch, chair, coffee table piled high with art books, two side tables with tulip-filled vases (enjoy the flowers while you can) and blood-red carpeting—begins to take on the aspect of an extreme-fighting cage as the play develops and the characters begin pummeling one another. Why should the set provide these tortured souls with any more comfort than they provide themselves?