Had the powers-that-be not bungled the whole idea of a “Best Replacement Tony” a few years back, I would readily nominate the new cast of God of Carnage, who started performances last night. The mere fact that I want to shower them with such accolades after merely one paid public performance should be enough evidence of how thrilling this new quartet works in Yasmina Reza’s study of good intentions gone awry.
The play has been running for a year, opening to rave reviews with a cast of stars who turned the play into a sell-out event, breaking house records and winning Tonys, etc. I saw the show last May, just before the awards hoopla ensued, and had a ridiculously good time from my seat in the rear mezzanine. (Thanks to KariG, we were in the front row). I hadn’t planned on taking in the show a second time, sometimes once can be enough.
However, when it was announced that original London star Janet McTeer would be reprising her role of Veronica (Veronique in the French-set London production), I was suddenly interested in a revisit. I’d fallen in love with this imperious talent during her acclaimed run of Mary Stuart opposite the estimable Harriet Walter last season, and am willing to hear her read the phone book. I had rumors that she was coming into the NY production, and was curious to see what her performance was like. McTeer was preferred by many friends who saw both the original London and Broadway companies. I was also intrigued at how she would fit into this Americanized version of Reza’s play. Rounding out the company was Dylan Baker as Alan, Lucy Liu as his wife Annette and Jeff Daniels (the production’s original Alan) as Veronica’s husband Michael (originally played by James Gandolfini).
Watching the play this time around, I was most taken with how playwright Reza keeps the actors (mainly Alan and Annette) in the living room for the play’s 90 minutes. This is especially more of a challenge as the play progresses, rum is served and verbal and physical assaults ensue. The couples have gathered because their sons were involved in a playground scuffle and hope to settle the incident in a civil manner, avoiding law suits and insurance claims.
McTeer dominates the stage. She is a natural presence; a living, breathing creature who unravels in front of her husband, two strangers and the entire house at the Jacobs Theatre. Her performance is simply tremendous, and I will admit a slight preference over Harden’s (whom I loved). She is so fascinating to watch in performance, it’s almost impossible to take your eyes away from her. I’ve rarely seen an actress who can be simultaneously gut-busting hilarious and tragic, and on top of it, McTeer makes it look so effortless.
Liu is making an auspicious Broadway debut as Annette; it was a delight watching her progress from an apologetic, sickly simp to a drunken Martha-in-training. Hers was the most surprising and unexpected performance, and I only hope she considers frequenting the NY theatre scene more often. She is especially memorable in her drunken monologue where she discovers her long-dormant confidence and unleashes her fury with $80 worth of imported tulips (seated in the front row, we got splashed – Kari even got a glass stone in her lap!).
Onto the men – Alan is a tailor made role for Baker: stringent, bored, clearly inconvenienced to be dealing with Michael and Veronica, as well as his own wife. Jeff Daniels was another curiosity – having played Alan so successfully, how would he transition into the other role? Quite brilliantly. It’s a testament to his versatility as an actor he can portray the two antithetical leading men in the same production without so much as blinking an eye. There is nothing in his Michael that even remotely suggests his disconnected, sardonic performance as Alan.
Putting all four together in that savagely blood red living room, it becomes something of a volatile game of doubles tennis. The two couples are innately juxtaposed, but things get interesting as allegiances shift among the quartet, exposing unpleasant truths about both marriages – which only provides more ammunition for the onslaught. Nothing amuses me more than watching characters shattering false illusions about themselves while completely falling from grace (and it is Veronica who has the farthest to fall, as she grasps onto notions of morality and humanity dismissed by the other three).
The play is still fiercely funny from start to finish, much of that credit is due to Tony-winning director Matthew Warchus (who hit two home runs last season with Carnage and, more impressively, the revival of The Norman Conquests). If you haven’t seen the play, yet, by all means, run! If you have, rest assured that the production is in excellent hands and worthy of a second glance.