God of Carnage may just be the worst play ever to win the Tony Award. Having attended the April 13th Los Angeles premiere of French writer Yasmina Reza’s “comedy of manners… without the manners” (translated by Christopher Hampton), I came away fearing for the future of international theatre if this is the best we can currently do.
An A-list cast comprised of Jeff Daniels, Hope Davis, James Gandolfini and Marcia Gay Harden play two married couples meeting to resolve one’s school-age son’s beating of the other couple’s son. Whereas their discussion begins civilly, it doesn’t take long for matters to degenerate among the adults to the level of playground politics. Cell phones get doused in water by angry spouses, freshly-imported tulips are strewn angrily across the set and, in what I believe to be a theatrical first, one unfortunate actor (Davis) projectile-vomits on stage.
Despite such a trailblazing moment, God of Carnage is a thoroughly predictable critique of post-9/11 American foreign policy. Reza is merciless in her allegorical condemnation, aided and abetted by British director Matthew Warchus. “Subtlety” is a word that doesn’t appear to exist in Reza’s and Warchus’s vocabulary. But maybe it’s just me, as many other audience members howled with laughter at the heavy-handed shenanigans, including recollections of the abandonment of a pet hamster on the street by Gandolfini’s rodent-phobic wholesaler. I hardly cracked a smile let alone laughed during the 90-minute, intermission-less running time.
The characters get inexplicably intoxicated by sharing no more than two-thirds of a bottle of rum. They revert to humankind’s Neanderthal roots and periodically pose ashamedly in front of the cave wall-esque backdrop to drive the comparison home. Their uninhibited, alcohol-and-vomit-fueled banter reminds one of Edward Albee’s similarly four-player but far superior Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? What God of Carnage lacks, however, is any sense of catharsis or redemption.
By play’s end, Africans have been referred to as “coons” and a child is called “faggot.” Such language is supposed to be shocking, and is, but even more disturbing is Reza’s and/or Hampton’s decision to include such dated, offensive terminology. The author(s) cross the lines of good taste and artistic license, and should be fined at least $100,000 as Kobe Bryant recently was for public use of the second term alone.
The actors’ performances can’t be faulted here, although one wonders what such respectable players saw in the material. They are all reprising their original, Tony-nominated Broadway turns for the LA run (Harden won the Tony for her performance). Davis is a lovely actress forced to demean herself during the play’s first half, but she is able to regain some dignity by its closing. The reverse is the case for poor Harden, one of my favorite contemporary performers on stage and screen. As the character deemed early on by the rest to have the most “integrity,” Harden is ultimately reduced to a crumpled, whimpering mess. It is painful to watch and (unlike many in the audience) I didn’t find it amusing in the least.
Gandolfini fits his “contemporary Neanderthal” role well from a physical perspective, and makes the easiest transition from initially-civilized father and businessman to raging, wife-hating xenophobe. I found Daniels, whom I would have thought the least interesting actor in the bunch, drawing my attention the most with his more understated performance. His character is also the most consistent in the play, if the least moral.
Since its cast members have significant film and TV followings, God of Carnage looks to be a huge hit in Los Angeles, having already extended its run by several weeks (through to May 29) thanks to robust ticket sales. I hope local audiences look beyond the superficial and see the play for what it really is: an anti-American diatribe that, like its characters, isn’t truly interested in dialogue about how to change things for the better. If you’ve seen the play and disagree with me, please do weigh in here.
Moisés Kaufman's 33 Variations, which just had a mounting at the Ahmanson with original star Jane Fonda, was nominated for the 2009 Tony Award but lost to God of Carnage. While 33 Variations is flawed, it is the better play, with a more interesting plot, relatable characters and considerably more significant things to say.
Moviegoers can also prepare for Roman Polanski’s upcoming movie version, starring Oscar winners Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz and Oscar nominee John C. Reilly. Hopefully, all involved will take a more sensitive and/or restrained approach to the text and yet uncover some true wisdom in it. In its present state, God of Carnage is messy and unpleasant as an unruly child’s graffiti, writ large in permanent marker on one’s living room wall.
Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Blade California.