If “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” had been written by Mel Brooks, it would be “God of Carnage.”
“God of Carnage,” Yasmina Reza’s Tony Award-winning Best Play of 2009, brings four of Broadway’s best actors to the Ahmanson to drive each other into a riotous, scenery-chewing frenzy. It also won a Tony for Matthew Warchus for Best Direction, and for Marcia Gay Harden as Best Actress for, among other exquisite moments, a spectacular farcical meltdown, and nominations for James Gandolfini and Jeff Daniels.
The play, translated from the French by Christopher Hampton, starts off as a politely mannered conversation between two married couples, Michael and Veronica (Gandolfini and Harden) and Alan and Annette (Jeff Daniels and Hope Davis). At issue is “the incident:” Alan and Annette’s 11-year-old son Benjamin has smacked Michael and Veronica’s son Henry in the mouth with a stick, seriously damaging two of his teeth. The parents have come together to discuss what needs to be done.
Veronica, a rigidly humorless martinet, has prepared a document that lists all the particulars, while husband Michael sits quietly by. Annette is politely apologetic. Alan, a lawyer, who is obviously bored by the whole situation, keeps talking on his cell phone about a case he is working on that involves a medication that apparently kills people every once in a while. He is representing the pharmaceutical company that manufactures the drug.
From this seemingly simple premise the conversation escalates, bouncing from a discussion of parenting styles to marital quirks to outright hostility. All fueled by the rapid consumption of a bottle of rum. The confrontations get more and more emotional and more and more outlandish until Annette, overwrought, throws up.
Later, in a superbly theatrical diversion, Annette, holding a plastic bucket in front of her face, paces back and forth in the background like a guard at Buckingham Palace, while the others continue haranguing each other. And, of course, despite all the activity in the foreground, the audience’s attention is riveted on Annette, waiting tensely for her next upheaval.
It is truly a delight to watch four such actors, well directed, and with a marvelous script, strut their stuff onstage. And even though the huge Ahmanson stage would seem to be too large a setting for such an intimate comedy, set designer Mark Thompson has brought the room together by bordering it with a decorative, horizontal Wailing Wall, minimal furnishings, and no excessive clutter.
As the quartet continues to unravel, Michael goes from a gracious host to a self-styled “neanderthal” and Alan winds up slumped in a dejected heap on the floor. We have watched two marriages implode amidst some of the funniest dialogue heard onstage in ages. It is “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” but funny rather than deadly.
If you can get a ticket (the play is pretty nearly sold out), do go. Even though the tickets are Broadway-priced, they’re worth every penny.
“God of Carnage” will continue its six-week run at the Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., in Downtown Los Angeles, Tuesdays through Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 2 and 8 p.m., and Sundays at 1 and 6:30 p.m. through May 29. Call (213) 972-4400 for tickets.
Cynthia Citron can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.