The Art of Co-Existence, or the Parenting Fail Revisited

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.

The Art of Co-Existence, or the Parenting Fail

The road to hell is paved with good intentions. And it’s never been more hilarious than it is here in God of Carnage, the most exhilarating new play I’ve seen in New York since August: Osage County.

When Veronica and Michael invite Alan and Annette over to their moderately upscale Brooklyn apartment on an ordinary weekday afternoon to discuss a playground altercation between their sons, good intent is first and foremost. The situation is civil, yet strained as they seek out to smooth out the rough edges: Alan and Annette’s (Jeff Daniels and Hope Davis) son hit Veronica and Michael’s (Marcia Gay Harden and James Gandolfini) son in the mouth with a stick, knocking out two incisors and causing some serious damage. Veronica’s insistence that Alan and Annette’s son make a meaningful apology to their son starts to unravel the forced placidity. Tensions mount and eventually explode in ways both metaphoric and literal.

God of Carnage is one of those incisive, cutting plays that gleefully exposes the narrow line between the civilized and primitive in human nature . The play by Yazmina Reza (translated into English by Christopher Hampton, her frequent English language collaborator) had a highly successful Olivier-winning run in London’s West End starring Ralph Fiennes and Janet McTeer, directed by Matthew Warchus. That production has transferred to New York for a limited engagement, relocating the setting to the Cobble Hill section of Brooklyn and Americanizing the text.

The four cast members, all of whom were nominated for Tonys (all as leads, I might add) carry the evening off with remarkably astute characterizations. Jeff Daniels is amusingly droll as a work-obsessed attorney whose main concerns lie with a major pharmaceutical case than with his family. Hope Davis is hilarious as his anxiety ridden wife whose nausea coincides with her husbands convenient habit of answering all cell phone calls. James Gandolfini plays the other father, more blue collar sort of man’s man who also happens to have a mortal fear of hamsters. The evening; however, belongs to Marcia Gay Harden, the mild-mannered, cultured, liberal “concerned parent” and author (she’s written a book on Darfur) who melts down to primordial chaos by the play’s end. At the play’s end the living room is a shambles, as are the individuals onstage who have had their hypocrisies tossed at them (some literally). As arguments and accusations are tossed, allegiances shift with the fluidity of a roving cumulus cloud. One minute it’s couple vs. couple, the next, the women vs. the men and on occasion three gang up on one. With each polemic shift, the play’s characters and their situations only become more complex, and as a result more hilarious.

It’s hard not to think of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? while watching a four-hander about bickering couples. However, this play is half the length and the social lubricants only make their grand debut about halfway through the play. Warchus, who directed last year’s first-rate revival of a third-rate farce (Boeing Boeing), once again manages to bring out unexpected humor and nuance in situations that are routinely formulaic. The characters become childlike, throwing tantrums, hurling insults, dropping truth bombs and causing more harm than the instigating incident on the playground. (Warchus also directed the limited engagement revival of Alan Ayckbourn’s The Norman Conquests, playing in rep at the Circle in the Square… we’ll have more on that one in the near future). The play gets off to a strained start, and rightly so: it’s awkward to watch a person trying to parent another person’s children. The tensions build and build, and about twenty minutes into the play, Hope Davis vomits all over Harden’s priceless art books pushing the characters and the audience past the point of no return. At this point all bets are off, and to paraphrase Margo Channing, “Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy afternoon.”

The production has wasted no time in touting its nominations, with signs already erected on the marquee. One of them reads: “Nominated for 6 Tonys, including the ENTIRE CAST.” All four actors have earned the nominations and deservedly so, though I have to say Harden as Veronica is the standout among a cast of winners (and at this point is my pick for the Tony award on June 7). I also want to add: this is the first time any of the four actors have appeared on Broadway in over a decade, and I’ve got to say, it’s good to have them back.

The show is currently running in a limited engagement at the Jacobs Theatre until August 2. Run, don’t walk.