Yasmina Reza’s play God of Carnage too deals with the theme of civilization and nature: a boy hits a playmate with a stick and scars his face. The victim’s parents invite the aggressor’s parent to discuss theproblem and the situation escalates from uncomfortable to downright brutal. The whole concept is very clever – civilization and education are twin themes and mirroring the way adults and children deal with underlying violent instincts can be illuminating. However, in spite of clever dialogues, the dramatic development is extremely artificial and one can see all the clumsy transitions when one notices the hand of the playwright forcing their characters to conclusions he had made before the play was written. In any case, Christopher Hampton’s English version is praiseworthy. I cannot say how much French Waltanschauung has been lost in the process, but as performed in the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, it seemed entirely spontaneous in the USA.
It is difficult to say if Ms. Reza wrote a text to flatter actors’ talents or if the play only works if redeemed by great actors. I tend to the second opinion, but the fact is irrelevant since director Matthew Warchus has gathered a truly sensational cast and masters the art of letting enough space for them to breathe in their own personalities but not too much space for them to overwhelm the proceedings. Hope Davis’s Annette believably develops from unease and nervous politeness to downright vandalism, while Jeff Daniels keeps a more crafted and more immediately “theatrical” approach to his Alan. James Gandolfini masters the art of “less is more”. Although his character is supposed to be the more extrovert of this quartet, his economical approach makes everything far more interesting and meaningful. Marcia Gay Harden has the lion’s share in this play. Hers is probably the main character – something of a Blanche DuBois in a tin can: the champion of civility poisoned by her own repressed violence. The play requires from her such extremes of quietness and frenzy that the occasional Luftpause is more than forgivable. She is also in charge of the funniest and most touching scenes and – the same can be said of the homogeneously admirable cast – the visible gear changes are rather the playwright’s fault. In any case, although the text requires a great deal of energy from them, one can see that they are actually having the time of their lives. And so the audience.
Finally, I don’t know if I really got Mark Thompson’s sets. I do not know if the semi-stylized approach added any layer of meaning to the staging. As it is, it seemed that he felt rather inclined to do something larger than life when a realistic approach would rather do.