By Lucy Komisar
Yasmina Reza’s God of Carnage smartly shows the disintegration of the thin veneer of civilization that keeps people civil. Reza, perhaps coming from the salon culture of France, has a habit of locating her dramas in living rooms. These tªte- -tªtes ought to show the height of culture. Instead, they display the dark sides of polite society.
This story begins with a touted civilized meeting between two couples, one clearly upper class, the other middle class, one couple chic, the other dowdy, to deal with fact that son of the first hit the son of the second. They start out honest, each admitting the family faults. As the evening gathering of nice people progresses, they descend from throwing words into throwing things. Taken further, we see the basic failure of ethical man. It is a fascinating transformation.
The characters are rather cartoonish. Marked by her clothes as striving lower middle class, Veronica (Marcia Gay Harden) has contributed to a collection on archeology and has a book coming out on the Darfur tragedies. But she doesn’t seem like a writerly type. Ironically, set against her concern about Darfur, her intense personality turns her into the most violent of the four. She is dominating and a screamer. Harden expertly inhabits this furious whirlwind that steadily picks up speed.
Her husband Michael (James Gandolfini), rotund, his shirt flapping out of his trousers, sells domestic hardware, a fancy description for plumbing fittings. Like Veronica, he is lower middle class. Gandolfini exudes crudeness and seethes with class resentment. On the other side of the track are the svelte, blond, well-dressed, Annette (Hope Davis) who is in wealth management, though she doesn’t ever talk about it.
Husband Alan (Jeff Daniels) spends an inordinate amount of time on his cell phone advising a drug company not to take a problematic drug off market because that would be to admit liability. Think of the victims later, he says. He asks for an espresso. So, he represents the immoral side. Or he represents the business side of immorality, a failure of civilization which turns out to have a ravaging personal side.
Director Matthew Warchus intensifies the mood as the hostility between all of them grows. At first the assaults are verbal. They find themselves screaming about a hamster. Veronica says she stands up for civilization, Then, they descend into throwing whatever objects are at hand.
Sometimes the pairings are couple against couple. Sometimes they are the women against the men; the women scream while the men sit on the couch drinking amiably. You are pulled into the vortex as events swing from dark and bizarre to slapstick. It would be comedic if the text were not so angry and bitter.
The excellent cast members draw their characters with distinctive brush strokes, yet in the end the picture is of a swirling mass of undifferentiated turmoil. The God of Carnage continues to rule, as it has uninterruptedly.
God of Carnage. Written by Yasmina Reza, Directed by Matthew Warchus. Translated by Christopher Hampton. Jacobs Theatre, 242 West 45th Street, New York City. 212-239-6200. Opened March 22, 2009.