God of Carnage, Yasmina Reza’s Tony-award winning play, is a four-character symphony that is playing like a bat out of hell on Broadway right now, and I consider it a must-see. If you live in the area, or if you are visiting, do not miss it – and if you can, see it with the original four actors – James Gandolfini, Marcia Gay Harden (winner of this year’s Tony Award for Best Actress in a Play), Hope Davis, and Jeff Daniels. It runs about 90 minutes without an intermission – which is great, because to step out of the momentum of the play would kill it. It requires that nobody (not the characters, nor the audience) gets to take a breath. It shows an evening that starts out one way and then goes south, and then after going south, it plummets to the deepest hot core of the earth, where all civilization is stripped away, and people basically lose their fucking minds. It reminded me a bit of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, except that George and Martha are rather on the edge from the beginning, eager to play “party games” with their hapless guests, and it is the two unwitting guests who end up being stripped not just of their civilized behavior, but their entire personality structures and ideals and values system. In God of Carnage, all four characters begin with the veneer. Nobody is conscious of what is going on underneath – in the group dynamic or in themselves. It seems as though they are truly having a discussion (very funnily written) about a playground fight between their two sons. We in the audience can sense the undercurrents but the characters can’t yet do so. There is a wonderful tension in those opening scenes.
To describe how things go south, and what the various triggers are, would be to ruin the exhilaration of seeing it for the first time. I went into it not knowing much about it, except for being familiar with Reza’s other plays, and also knowing it just won some Tonys. There is no surprise in the plot, akin to the surprise of George and Martha’s child (their “secret”) in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, but the surprise (and the delight) comes in watching these four spectacular actors create this EVENT – from wholecloth. The end of the play has to be IN THEM from the beginning, but in the beginning there are zero clues as to where we will be going. What a ride. What an exhilarating ride.
It’s another one of those rare theatrical events where everything is in perfect balance. No one is clearly having a “star turn”, they each get equal play, they each have their “moment”, but like I said in the beginning – it is a symphony. To take out one part to analyze it would wreck the fabric of the whole. These four actors are creating this organic event TOGETHER, and God, there were moments where I found myself laughing, clapping, and saying stuff like, “Holy crap” out loud (and I was not alone) – not because it was fun or funny or a hoot, but because what I was seeing up on that stage was so out of hand, and yet so truthful, that I couldn’t believe my eyes.
I didn’t have time to think or analyze or step back. My eyes raced from one person to the other to the other, thinking, “Oh, how will she take that …” “Oh shit, forgot about him over there … what’s going on with him …” “My God, look at Marcia Gay – WHAT IS SHE DOING??”
One of the things that was so incredible about the acting of Gandolfini, Harden, Daniels and Davis is that eventually it becomes one of the most physical of plays. People run around screaming. People throw things. People wrestle. But when the lights go up, we see four characters sitting politely on two couches, and everyone is talking in a nice low manner, all civilized and “Oh yes, we understand how it is on the playground … but our boy lost a tooth … what can we do about it?” “It is so wonderful how understanding you are being …” … and by the end the four of them are wrecked shells of who they used to be. And somehow it is all hysterical AND heart-wrenching at the same time. Nothing is played just for laughs.
Its interesting, I would like to read the script just as a document and see how it reads. There are some terrific lines, and all of the characters are clear and well-written, but in my opinion it’s the acting that makes it transcend. Again, I’d have to read it to see what I think. To be clear, when you sit down and read a play like Streetcar Named Desire or Long Day’s Journey Into Night, they are fantastic pieces of literature all on their own. Yes, an actor can make it live, can leave an indelible impression (phone call for Marlon Brando) – but the scripts can be read on their own. I am not sure if that is the case with God of Carnage – I’ll have to read it. But it seems to me that there might be something a bit thin at the heart of it, a bit too clever … but no matter, no matter. The four actors in question (and the direction) delve as deeply into this event as they can possibly go, and you forget you’re watching a play, you forget you’re watching four big stars go at it up there … You are gripped by the throat and you are never allowed out of it until the lights go down 90 minutes later.
There is a staggered quality to the journeys of the characters. Some are harder nuts to crack (Marcia Gay’s character, for example – but boy, when she lets loose, you feel like, “Uhm, this woman is going to be in Bellevue in a matter of moments if someone doesn’t DO SOMETHING”), but when things start falling apart, boom boom boom, down they all go, like ninepins. They are inextricably linked. They aren’t even good friends. This is not like a Big Chill scenario, where all the chaos and sexual shenanigans and drunkenness come out of the fact that this is a big group of friends with a long history, and they all know WAY too much about one another, and there is nowhere to hide. No, God of Carnage is about the meeting of two couples, for the first time. They have been brought together because the son of Hope Davis and Jeff Daniels has “attacked” the son of Jim Gandolfini and Marcia Gay Harden with a stick. So to watch these two couples unravel is astonishing, because I couldn’t help but think, “Holy crap, these people are gonna wake up tomorrow morning and be like … was that ME last night? What the hell happened??”
I have “favorite” moments in my head for each actor, the take-aways of these four great performances:
1. Gandolfini is so funny, so so good here – true and real and ugly and funny, and there isn’t a moment he doesn’t nail. But you don’t feel him cashing in on his giant Sopranos success (although he is perfectly perfectly cast here), he’s not winking at the audience or anything like that. Like I said, there are no star turns here. Nobody is “slumming”. These are actors at the top of their collective game, and it was so much fun to see him just let loose in the midst of this new environment. At one crucial crazy point, he suddenly gets up and walks across the stage, taking off his shirt. He is taking off his shirt because he is out of his mind and he’s fed up with playing polite, and fed up with the insinuations about his character, and the best part about the gesture is that it feels like a surprise, it feels like a grizzly bear suddenly standing up. The best thing to do when you see something like that is to either lie down and play dead, or whip out your crossbow and take that ferocious beast down. It’ll be you or him. That’s what it feels like. (phone call for Timothy Treadwell). This is a man who has been domesticated, and almost fully. But suddenly, no more, no more. He’s had it. But the way Gandolfini sort of staggers across the stage, taking off his shirt, is so hilarious, so real, that when I saw it the audience erupted into excited laughter. The laughter of recognition, fear, and also just the thrill of being in the presence of an actor who has actually been driven out of his mind to such a degree that he has to start whipping off his clothes.
2. Jeff Daniels is so damn good that I had a difficult time not just tracking HIM and what he was doing. I had to remind myself that there were three other people on the stage. What he is up to is subtle, and subversive, and many times he has very difficult moments where he’s on his cell phone in the background and he has to make his voice go low, to let the other actors be heard, and then he has to surge back into the focus, with one beat – and there’s a ba-dum-ching quality to what is going on, and he nails it, every single time. It was fabulous. Because that takes technique, that takes an understanding of being on stage and an understanding of ensemble acting. Now of course I am not surprised that Jeff Daniels has all of these things. But it was so exciting to see it in such high gear, and to see him operating at such a high level of consciousness. He created a character – a kind of cool distant lawyer, always on his cell phone, a bit annoyed that he has been roped into this bogus “meeting” about something he finds hard to take seriously in the first place … but he also has to have a three-dimensional awareness of what everyone else is doing on that stage at all times, since his “moment in the sun” doesn’t really come until very late. He is the counterpoint to the other three lunatics. He paces around, barking orders into his phone, eating the carefully prepared food with a fork, while standing up, and it’s so damn hilarious and rude. You never ever catch Daniels “acting”, but make no mistake: this is not just a guy “listening and talking” up there, or behaving, or doing something that is wholly natural. He has to have the timing of the entire piece in his DNA, because he is not the driving force, he is on the support team – until the very end, when he emerges as the one who will speak the title of the play and make it explicit for us. Of course it would be HIS character who understands that God is a “god of carnage”. Jeff Daniels makes everything look easy and that is why I couldn’t take my eyes off of him.
3. Hope Davis is so off-the-charts with her acting (no surprise there) that it is her unraveling that really becomes the focus of the entire thing – until, of course, Marcia Gay takes over, and then Gandolfini takes over, and finally Daniels takes over. But she’s the one who takes the fall first. She seems the most fragile, but in the end we realize she’s in touch with something much deeper than the rest: her own rage, her own sense of alienation and meaninglessness – which was trembling there with her in the civilized beginning. She has the most transparent of masks, so of course that’s why she goes down first. Very early on in the play, she gets physically ill. I was sitting in the third row, so I could see everything: how Gandolfini’s face literally got beet-red when he screamed into the phone at his mother, the food spitting out of Daniels’ mouth as he inhaled it while talking on his cell phone … and I swear I watched Hope Davis’ face literally go a sickly green color, directly before she got sick. This actress is beyond good. I wanted the play to go on for another hour so I could just watch what kept rolling across her face. It’s a tour de force.
4. And Marcia Gay Harden. I have seen her onstage before, but never in a role of this magnitude. She’s the one with the toughest ego, in a way, the one who has a vested interest in the “role” she has given herself to play in the world. She has art books stacked on her coffee table, she is committed to the problems in Africa, she is a do-gooder (something that Jeff Daniels totally clocks her for in a devastating observation – “Women like you, custodians of the world, depress men.”), and she speaks in a soft modulated voice, all calm and caring and “reasonable”. That’s why her disintegration of personality is so hilarious and so disturbing. She had one moment, when she is so far gone, so furious, so out of control, and she’s leaning over to pick something up off the floor – and Gandolfini, her husband, embarrassed for her, says something to her like, “Honey, you’re making a scene -” but he barely gets any words out before Marcia Gay, bent over at the waist, kind of cocks her ass right at him, as though she’s firing a gun off, doesn’t straighten up the rest of her body, still hunched over, and screams up at him on the diagonal, in a horrifying screech, “IDON’TGIVEASHIT.” I nearly could not recover from that moment – it was such a funny and AWFUL moment of unleashed rage, and her physicality was so specific, but it didn’t feel like a “bit”, or that she had planned it out beforehand. She has become a beast of the field, and all bets are off from that point on.
I am not sure if I would say that this is a great play, in and of itself. But I know, without a shadow of a doubt, that what is going on right now at the Bernard Jacobs Theatre on 45th Street is an EVENT of the highest order.
Don’t miss it.