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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

 
GOD OF CARNAGE
at the Jacobs

WHAT LIES BENEATH THE SURFACE
By JESSICA BRANCH

  Hope Davis and Jeff Daniels/PH: Sara Krulwich

Nothing against mindless bickering, spousal betrayal, or exposing the seamy underbelly of the smug upper-middle class and all, but in the spring of 2009, you'd hardly think any of those theatrical mainstays would pass for novelties, as they're apparently meant to do (again) in Yasmina Reza's latest comedy of manners. And indeed, though there are a few amusing moments and a flash or two of transient insight in God of Carnage, there's little to surprise or enlighten-and after the first half hour, not much to amuse, either. What there is: Enough bitchiness, caricatured characters, and sniping one-liners to give the extremely talented cast a playground-though, as with the action on real playgrounds, the action feels more like unscripted melee than work of art.

The play's been translated by the talented Christopher Hampton and transported to Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, where Alan (Jeff Daniels) and Annette (Hope Davis) are paying an uncomfortable visit to Veronica (Marcia Gay Harden) and Michael (James Gandolfini). The former are a corporate lawyer and his wealth-managing wife -the latter, a socially concerned writer and her blunt wholesaler husband, and the visit is intended to determine how the four parents should deal with a playground incident in which one of their eleven-year-olds broke two of the other's teeth. As the tensions take their toll on all the relationships among the four, Alan, the least interested of the lot, keeps taking calls on his cell as he does damage control for a drug that's developed some unpleasant side effects -Veronica pushes clafouti on her guests to compensate for her righteous indignation -Michael's still living down an unfortunate incident with the family pet and Annette has an ill-timed bout of nausea (or is it a covert form of art criticism?). As the couples drag their dissatisfactions with one another into the arguments, what starts out as a strained interchange between adults more or less meaning to be civil rapidly deteriorates into a pitched battle, with no quarters asked or given.

Reza's theme seems, as always, to be that brutality lies beneath the veneer of everyday etiquette. Quelle surprise. Though there's an occasional acute observation about haute Brooklyn and a certain initial energy as the alliances shift, but there's no over-arching idea or striking conclusion-the play just stumbles on and on as the couples (and the audience) grow more weary, and the action doesn't so much escalate as deteriorate.

Lending the play some personality, and, occasionally, even some pathos, are the bravura performances given by all four performers. Harden is convincingly insufferable as the complacently caring, forceful Veronica, contrasting with Davis's portrait of a flighty but urbane second wife-whose breeding forces her to put on a better show than her blatantly uninterested husband. Daniels' unrepentantly amoral lawyer is the only one of the four characters who genuinely seems to enjoy most of the proceedings, and his telephonic asides are straight out off the streets of midtown. But it's Gandolfini who really stands out as the fractures in his marriage begin to show. He may retain his temper the longest, but he also loses it to best effect. It's an impressive ensemble, ably directed by Matthew Warchus, who manages to keep the dreary action moving and even suggest some pattern in its meandering. But why waste such talent on such trivia? Quel dommage.

 


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