God of Carnage
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
March 21, 2009
God of Carnage takes as its thesis that so-called civilized people are, in fact, not. That's true as far as it goes; but for me this Broadway debut of God of Carnage doesn't go very far at all. I suspect that Matthew Warchus's production—using an Americanized translation of the script by Christopher Hampton—may not show Yasmina Reza's original French play to best advantage.
The play is set in the living room of Michael and Veronica Vallon. It's a large space, defined in Mark Thompson's set by a massive rear wall decorated with elegant, expensive-looking textured wallpaper. There's a big white couch, covered with pillows; a couple of chairs; a shelf at one end of the room and a cocktail bar at the other; and a huge coffee table centerstage covered with piles of massive art books. I assumed from the decor that the Vallons must be wealthy, chic people. But as I got to know them, I decided that was wrong: they're actually resolutely middle-class people who wish to be upper-class, which may or may not matter to what follows.
Michael and Veronica have invited Alan and Annette Raleigh to their home this afternoon to discuss the fight that their sons had the day before. Benjamin (the Raleighs' boy) hit Henry (the Vallons' boy) with a stick while they were playing in a neighborhood park—hit him so hard that Henry lost part of two incisors and needed two extra-strength Tylenols for the pain. The parents have come to talk over the accident—not to discuss who will pay the dental bills (Michael dismisses that issue early on, saying that that's what insurance is for), but rather to decide how the boys (specifically Benjamin) should be handled/punished. Veronica, in particular, wants a severe lesson to be taught. The Raleighs are not so sure, and indeed become quickly defensive. It's not long before open warfare breaks out.
As I said, it's all about how socialization disappears under pressure, only to be replaced by barbarity. It's presented here as insult comedy and slapstick; it's very funny for a while, but starts to feel like meanness about halfway in. For me, the problem is that the outrageous actions depicted here—and believe me, Reza, Hampton, and Warchus have their characters go waaaay over the top, with accelerating desperation—don't feel grounded in anything. I read God of Carnage as a sort of clown play, its characters behaving not as normal grown-ups do but rather in the uncensored, unfettered, untethered way of an unrestricted innocent who doesn't think about the consequences of his actions and lacks the resources to extricate herself from a situation she can no longer manage. I wanted someone like the young Carol Burnett in the part of Veronica (who is the dramatic and moral center of the play); playing opposite a Sid Caesar, a Jean Hagen, a Bill Irwin—performers who could make the merely grotesque into something grandly hysterical, who could reduce the audience to such painful howls of unending laughter that painful truths about the human condition might be revealed.
Instead, Warchus has cast four more-than-competent dramatic actors—James Gandolfini and Marcia Gay Harden as the Vallons, Jeff Daniels and Hope Davis as the Raleighs—in roles that seem to cry out for outsized clowns. Reza's tragedy is diminished to sitcom ordinariness: it functions, but it doesn't attain the level of grandeur that I think it deserves. The many places where these four characters do not behave the way normal people would (for starters, why don't Alan and Annette ever leave?) start to feel more and more like gaps in logic. This is exacerbated by Warchus's slow, naturalistic staging, which is punctuated with many long, awkward pauses.
Is there a commentary on classism in Reza's play in addition to the more general one about human nature? I think so, but the translation to two Brooklyn families fails to make that point clearly.
There is much that's resonant to take away from God of Carnage: not only its honest view of the worst inside all of us, but its more focused jabs at cell phone culture, pharmaceutical companies' dishonesty, and inappropriate parenting techniques of various descriptions. But when I left the theatre, I felt that I hadn't seen the play's true potential realized.