Review by Barbara Mehlman and Geri Manus
22 March 2009
We're all so polite. Rarely do we say what we're thinking for fear of giving offense, but often we want to say things like, "Your son is rotten and you're a lousy parent." But we don't. However, the characters in Yasmina Reza's hilarious new play, "God of Carnage" do, and it's the most fun you'll have in the theater this season.
Reza, the French playwright whose “Art” won a Tony for Best Play, has a way of looking at human behavior and our reactions to the seemingly small things in life, and then excavating them till she gets to the soft center -- and then relentlessly pokes at it till it bleeds.
“God of Carnage” begins as a polite and reasoned discussion between two sets of parents whose sons’ have gotten into a schoolyard battle, and ends as a side-splitting free-for-all as the parents' middle-class values are caught in an unflattering spotlight. Set in the comfortable Brooklyn home of Veronica and Michael, the play opens with the hosts on one couch, and their invited guests, Annette and Alan, on the other. Veronica, who has spent time in Africa and writes about Darfur, is appalled by the violent beating her 11-year-old son Henry suffered at the hands of his friend, Benjamin, causing him to lose two teeth, not to mention his self-esteem.
In self-congratulatory mode, Veronica begins the discussion by informing Annette and Alan that another couple would not have been so civilized, whereas she is simply seeking an apology and an agreement that Henry's broken teeth will be paid for. But not really.
Her outer civility, punctuated with loaded comments, eventually deteriorates into the equivalent of bourgeois savagery as each couple reveals their insecurities about life, liberty, and the pursuit of perfect parenting. With rapid-fire barbs that escalate into physical assaults, these two couples exhibit behavior far worse than any schoolyard brawl could entail.
Alan is a corporate lawyer who needs to have his cell phone surgically removed from his ear, and is more concerned with his clients’ business than his son's behavior. His uptight wife responds to his detachment by vomiting all over Veronica’s precious coffee-table books. Michael jumps into the fray by pulling out a blow dryer to dry the wet carpet, which, thankfully, serves to drown out his wife’s shrieking hysteria.
One might be quick to assume he's the only sane one of the group, but Michael is played by James Gandolfini, formerly Tony Soprano, so you know this appearance of civility won't last. He's a sort-of murderer who releases his daughter's hamster into the streets of Brooklyn because he hates rodents, and finally explodes with, "my wife passes me off as a liberal but I'm a freaking Neanderthal." Only he didn't say "freaking."
With this admission, the barriers collapse, the tongues are loosed, and the bric-a-brac go flying. They are competing as parents, as men who really believe they can drink rum and smoke cigars if they want to, as women who stake their identities on having prestigious careers and making clafouti from scratch. But there's a bigger idea here which is what makes Reza is such a great playwright.
Reza has structured her play so that each character in turn becomes the center of a scene, giving us insight into what makes them behave the way they do, and say the things they say. The fight between Henry and Benjamin serves merely as a starting point for what "Carnage" is really about -- how men and women define virility, and how pretentious middle-class affectations have prevented men from being real men.
Though we are holding our sides at the hilarious melee on stage, our minds are engaged by this discussion. Best line: "A man who can't give the impression that he's a loner has no texture." Best performance: the stellar cast of Gandolfini, Marcia Gay Harden, Jeff Daniels and Hope Davis all are "best" and this play -- guaranteed Tony nomination and probably the statuette as well.
(Barbara Mehlman & Geri Manus)
BEN BRANTLEY for NEW YORK TIMES says, "A satisfyingly primitive entertainment with an intellectual veneer."
JOE DZIEMIANOWICZ for NEW YORK DAILY NEWS, "Keeps the fur flying and the laughter landing"
ELISABETH VICENTELLI for NEW YORK POST says, "It's been a while since Broadway's seen such gleefully nasty fun.
JOHN SIMON for BLOOMBERG says, "What a pleasant surprise to share a walloping good time with the audience at this comedy, whose ferocious title paradoxically reinforces the subtly furibund fun."
ELYSA GARDNER for USA TODAY says, "Scabrously funny new play"
DAVID SHEWARD for BACK STAGE says, "A feast for both actors and audience."
ROBERT FELDBERG for THE RECORD says, "Evenings in the theater don't get any funnier"
ROMA TORRE for NY1 says, "Offers theatergoers more than enough to sink their teeth and funny bones into."
MICHAEL KUCHWARA for ASSOCIATED PRESS says, "Hilarious yet surprisingly thoughtful comedy"
DAVID ROONEY for VARIETY says, "It's elegant, acerbic and entertainingly fueled on pure bile."