‘Carnage’ a Delightful Romp

Courtesy of Joan Marcus

It’s not often that I get the opportunity to see a Broadway production, less so in my backyard. So when I found out that “God of Carnage,” the Tony Award recipient for Best Play in 2009, was coming to Los Angeles with its original Broadway cast, I jumped at the opportunity to see it.

The play revolves around two couples coming together to resolve a dispute between their children. Michael (James Gandolfini) and Veronica (Marcia Gay Harden) attempt to be good hosts to Alan (Jeff Daniels) and Annette (Hope Davis), but it doesn’t take long before nit-picking and underhanded comments escalate into full blown screaming matches and physical confrontations. I should probably add that this is a comedy.

The casting is excellent. Harden’s Veronica is a bookish and expressive character whose sympathy for Africa and passion for contemporary art are weighed down by her painfully average wares salesman husband Michael. Gandolfini was undoubtedly tapped to play Michael as a result of his work on “The Sopranos.” Michael starts off as tepid and reserved, which seems to be a change of pace for Gandolfini, but about one-third of the way through he is back to his racist, aggressive, Jackie Gleason homage which garnered him so many accolades on television. Jeff Daniels masterfully plays Alan, a snarky businessman counterpoint to Davis’ less acerbic but equally pragmatic Annette.

The sense of balance, from stage design to blocking, is outstanding. A craggy, picture-less wall serves as the main backdrop behind a couch, some chairs and a coffee table buried under piles of art books. Two tables flank the stage, each supporting vases of lilies (which Annette uses as projectiles later on). The whole set seems small compared to the large red ambience that extends dozens of feet upward behind the rear wall, as if to enhance the actors’ isolation and self-loathing, which are expanded upon later on in the production. The use of space on the stage is excellent as well, with every area fully explored.

It is plays like these that are living, breathing endorsements for live theater. As someone who doesn’t go often enough (and I’m not alone, apparently, as I was by far the youngest person there), the drama conveyed on stage just doesn’t translate in the cinema (or worse, on a computer screen). The stiff lulls in conversation that pepper the dialogue in the beginning carry an extra, awkward gravity that just doesn’t translate in recorded performance.

These two couples believe that their kids can do no wrong, and in seeing their black and white words devolve into muddy shades of grey, we see the actors challenges themes of masculinity and femininity, honesty, marriage, love and prioritization. The conversation starts with a lexical discussion of reimbursements owed for medical bills and slowly transforms into introspective look as to what it means to be a parent, a companion and a role model (with hilarity ensuing all throughout).

My only real criticisms are with the play itself and not its execution. Alan is glued to his cell phone and is constantly answering it in the middle of conversations. It goes to such an extreme that Annette eventually snaps and throws it into one of the tulip vases full of water to fry it. The notion of a businessman being glued to his cell phone is not new, and felt very mid-’90s to me. I understand that technology interfering with our life experience is a recurring theme today more than ever, but “Carnage” doesn’t attempt to explore that. It’s used as a comedic crutch, and somewhat ineffectively in my opinion.

I also was somewhat underwhelmed by the play’s look at masculinity. John Wayne is referenced multiple times — Annette asks Michael how he can be so courageous in one self-purported anecdote, yet be afraid of a guinea pig. Like technology, the decline of masculinity is certainly a 21st-century theme, but men not living up to a John Wayne machismo felt like an outside-in look at American masculinity. This was confirmed when I discovered that “Carnage” is a translation of a French play; as a student of the country and its culture for years, I can attest to the fact that its people’s obsession with 1950s notions of American tough guys is unwavering.

However, these criticisms are minute in the grand scheme of things. “Carnage” is chock-full of accessible comedy and drama, and overall, it made for a terrifically enjoyable outing. You can now commit this article to the foot-tall stack of reviews that laud this play — highly recommended.

Rating: 5/5 Stars