Undercard of Jabbers Replaces Punchers
The marquee bout has concluded at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theater, where Yasmina Reza’s Tony-winning play “God of Carnage” has been drawing sold-out audiences since opening in the spring. Elvis has left the building, which is to say that the production’s big box office draw, James Gandolfini, has moved on, along with the rest of the original cast. Four limber and capable new combatants have entered the ring.
In the corner on which all eyes have hitherto been glued stands Ken Stott, who has been given the unenviable task of replacing Mr. Gandolfini. Do I hear somebody asking, Ken who?
Mr. Stott is an esteemed British actor, one of the original West End stars of Ms. Reza’s career-igniting play “Art,” who now resumes the role he created in the London production of “God of Carnage” (alongside the formidable likes of Ralph Fiennes and Janet McTeer). No supernova in the celebrity firmament, true, but no slouch on the acting front, as he handily proves here.
Warming up in the other corners are performers more familiar to American audiences: Christine Lahti, the warm, elegant actress known for her work on film (“Running on Empty”), television (“Chicago Hope”) and the stage; Annie Potts, one of the spunky Southern decorators in the beloved sitcom “Designing Women,” making her Broadway debut; and Jimmy Smits, the handsome, silken-voiced star of the television series “NYPD Blue” and a stage veteran of a couple of decades.
The bell rings. Pleasant chatter begins. Coffee and pastry are served. But the gentility soon gives way to the hurling of insults, projectile vomiting, physical assault, wanton destruction of a cellphone, rampaging battery by tulip and other assorted forms of bad behavior.
For those who follow neither Broadway nor the career of Mr. Gandolfini, Ms. Reza’s comedy is a dark domestic farce that suggests that bloodthirsty beasts stalk the streets of Brooklyn in the guise of well-heeled, well-meaning members of the bourgeoisie.
Brought together for a friendly meeting after a schoolyard incident between their preteenage sons, the two couples in “God of Carnage” begin their play date amiably enough. But as the tensions rise and the liquor begins to flow, everybody sheds his or her civilized skin to reveal the vicious, wounded or alienated creature underneath.
“God of Carnage” is not a particularly subtle play, and it should be noted that the generally excellent new cast brings a slightly blunter edge to this primal rite staged in a pricey living room. But under Matthew Warchus’s precise direction, the play definitely retains its appeal as a superficial but potent entertainment. It’s laced with the kind of caustic commentary about the fissures in modern marriage and the burdens of child rearing that is catnip to Broadway audiences, even when the bons mots are not coming from the mouths of the preternaturally famous.
As Michael, the owner of a domestic-furnishings business married to Ms. Lahti’s writer and scholar, Veronica, Mr. Stott gives an astute, funny and psychologically nuanced performance that grows in effectiveness as his character moves from the margins of the play to the center. Beneath Michael’s genial embarrassment at this awkward meeting, Mr. Stott subtly suggests a long-stoked bitterness over the civilized hypocrisies he is forced to engage in by his liberal wife.
When it is revealed that Michael and Veronica’s son, the ostensible victim of the incident, may in fact have been the gang-leading aggressor, Mr. Stott transforms his hangdog slouch into a bouncing swagger. And when Michael becomes the victim of a concerted attack for dumping his daughter’s hamster in the street, the amiable veneer cracks wide open to reveal a brutish man happy to confess that he’s a “Neanderthal,” hardly caring that in doing so he has announced himself to be a member of the species his wife has ostensibly devoted her life to eradicating.
In the role for which Marcia Gay Harden won a Tony this year, Ms. Lahti moves from schoolmarmy rectitude to screeching, superficial banshee (“Oh, no! The Kokoschka!”) with a whiplash-inducing speed that is startling and funny. She employs her deep voice to savory comic effect, and as the claws come out, Ms. Lahti’s lithe, agile frame suggests an animal ready to pounce.
Playing Annette, the lone full-time parent and particularly aggrieved about that discarded rodent, Ms. Potts seems herself like a neglected hamster in the play’s opening scenes, hiding behind the sweep of her chic, asymmetrical haircut in mortification at her husband’s constant barking into his cellphone. She too morphs with amusing dispatch into a pugnacious gorgon when illness and booze unleash the demons within. But even at her most unbridled, mincing with determination toward the rum bottle, she retains a dainty elegance. (Fun to watch though they are, neither Ms. Lahti nor Ms. Potts excavates the emotional fragility that Ms. Harden and Hope Davis found in the roles.)
In the play’s least showy role, Mr. Smits gives a compellingly cool performance, gliding easily through the proceedings like a sated panther looking on with indifference at a scene of bloody combat. It is he who shruggingly opines that the brutal gods worshiped by our less evolved ancestors still hold sway over our souls today.
Ms. Reza dapples the arguments with such dollops of nihilism and existential angst. (“We’re always on our own!” Michael snorts. “Everywhere!”) But they are mostly intellectual décor. “God of Carnage” exhausts its ideas well before the curtain falls, and as the various antagonisms subside and then mechanically start up again, you really do begin to feel you’re watching a four-way prizefight, an event that continues only because the rules of play demand it.
The rules of play on Broadway these days all but demand that crowd-drawing names are an imperative ingredient in straight plays, old or new. The producers’ decision to recast “God of Carnage” with good actors of only medium wattage qualifies as a moderately bold salvo aimed at the deity that seems to be solidifying a grasp on the American theater with each passing year, the god of celebrity.
GOD OF CARNAGE
By Yasmina Reza; translated by Christopher Hampton; directed by Matthew Warchus; sets and costumes by Mark Thompson; lighting by Hugh Vanstone; music by Gary Yershon; sound by Simon Baker/Christopher Cronin. Presented by Robert Fox, David Pugh and Dafydd Rogers, Stuart Thompson, Scott Rudin, Jon B. Plat, the Weinstein Company and the Shubert Organization.
At the Bernard B. Jacobs Theater, 242 West 45th Street, Manhattan; (212) 239-6200. Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes.