Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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The Gods Must Be Crazy

April 20, 2011

James Gandolfini, Hope Davis, Jeff Daniels, and Marcia Gay Harden Photo: Craig Schwartz/CTG 2011

There’s funny and then there’s profoundly funny. Or better yet, there are things that make one laugh, and then there are things that make one laugh and think at the same time. There is a fine line here to be sure, but it’s an important distinction to be made. Which brings us to Yasmina Reza’s God of Carnage. A play about what happens when two pairs of parents are asked to spend 90 minutes on a single stage to show what happens when people stop being polite and start being real. Or something like that. The play opened on Broadway in 2009 winning the Tony Award for Best Play and garnering nominations for all four of its cast members including James Gandolfini, Marcia Gay Harden, Hope Davis, and Jeff Daniels. In something of a casting coup, Center Theater Group managed to contract with all four stars to reprise their roles here in Los Angeles at the Ahmanson Theater when God of Carnage opened there last week under the direction of Tony-winner Matthew Warchus.

Warchus has developed a reputation of turning dramatic straw into theater gold in London and New York with much lauded revivals of comic gems such as Boeing-Boeing and The Norman Conquests. That he was drafted into collaborating on Reza’s somewhat bloodless comedy of manners would seem a natural fit. And it is in many ways. A couple, Annette (Davis) and Troy (Daniels) have come to the well-appointed house of Veronica (Harden) and Tony (Gandolfini) to discuss an event of physical violence the 11 year-old son of the former has recently enacted on the 11 year-old son of the latter. Things start out pleasant enough, but soon the pretenses come down and the booze and true feelings come out, creating some sharp one liners. Warchus stands back and manages four excellent actors by letting them do their thing and the results are often very funny. And despite the lack of blood, Reza and Warchus do work in some other bodily fluids including perhaps the funniest vomiting scene you're likely to see anytime soon on a stage.

But does this amount to anything? That was a bit harder for me to decide. God of Carnage, despite its many appeals to our baser selves, is surprisingly genteel. It couldn't hold a candle to Pinter or any number of contemporary playwrights for actual bite or edge despite all the predictable arguments among the characters. There are some implications that Reza is critiquing the myopic concerns of (American) family life. When Annette questions the authenticity of Veronica's concern for the children of Darfur from her New York condominium, you can see where the cultural lines are being drawn. But the indiscreet charms of the Bourgeoisie are hardly new material for the stage. Furthermore the notion that a thin layer of civility is all that separates us from more animal instincts hardly seems like the basis for sophisticated comic play at this point, even at just over an hour and a half. Warchus and the design team do try to make the most out of it with a clever visual motif of encroaching darkness on the characters displacing the bright red of the single living room set. But I couldn't help feeling the whole thing was somewhat hollow.

Perhaps the biggest exception to that, though, is the performance of Marcia Gay Harden. The only winner among an entire casts' worth of Tony nominations, she does manage to turn Veronica into something more than just a character. Not that it isn't fun to watch the great thespian sparring, but Harden definitely brings just a little bit more to the evening. And that may be more than enough to see this very high quality production. God of Carnage may not make you a better person, but it won't leave you displeased or unamused either. It runs downtown through May 29.


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