Page 22

22 Downtown News

April 18, 2011

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An All-Star Battle Royale In God of Carnage, Ahmanson Gets A Ballet of Verbal Blood and Guts by Jeff favre contributing writer

I

f you know French playwright Yasmina Reza, then you know a quiet, rational gathering between two well-to-do urban couples is hardly going to remain civilized. That’s because Reza — as she proved with her best-known works, Life X 3 and Art — specializes in brief, spare and sharpas-a-tack comedies, where she strips away the veneer of the upper crust to reveal the ugliness underneath. The latest is God of Carnage, which wowed Broadway audiences two years ago with an all-star cast that Center Theatre Group has managed to reassemble for its run at the Ahmanson Theatre. The show continues through May 29. A ballet of verbal blood and guts, God of Carnage may be the most impressive social satire in Reza’s arsenal, though credit for her work must, as usual, also go to English translator Christopher Hampton and longtime di-

rector Matthew Warchus. This time around, the kudos should be shared equally with the Tony-nominated cast of Jeff Daniels, Hope Davis, James Gandolfini and Marcia Gay Harden. Each spans the emotional universe, from subtle glances to tyrannical tirades, without an ounce of posturing. In a scant 90 minutes, Reza and company travel from sane to batty without sacrificing believability. Interestingly, the trick to making it work does not fall on the all-star cast — it’s Warchus, who knows when to take baby steps, and when to literally leap to the next level. The starting point is a subdued conversation between strangers who are attempting to resolve an issue. The 11-year-old son of Alan (Daniels) and Annette (Davis), using a stick, struck the son of Michael (Gandolfini) and Veronica (Harden), knocking out two of his teeth. Seated in Michael and Veronica’s pristine New York living room (a striking set fea-

photos by Craig Schwartz

(l to r) Hope Davis, Marcia Gay Harden, Jeff Daniels, and James Gandolfini reprise their Tonynominated roles in God of Carnage. Yasmina Reza’s play continues through May 29 at the Ahmanson Theatre.

turing towering blood-red walls and carpet designed by Mark Thompson, and draped in Hugh Vanstone’s ominous lighting), the parents bend over backward to make everyone feel comfortable with the situation. Naturally, it doesn’t work. Each time a solution about how to deal with the boys is within grasp, a few choice words derail the process. It doesn’t help that Alan, a lawyer, keeps rudely fielding cell phone calls from his client, a pharmaceutical company with a drug that has harmful side effects. The home phone also is busy, thanks to frequent and unwelcomed calls from Michael’s ill mother. As Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf has taught, alcohol is the great accelerator. So when the rum gets flowing, the adults devolve, first into children, and then into a virtual pack of rabid dogs with no leader. There are no false steps with these actors, who have set the bar impossibly high for the revivals to come. Gandolfini uses his imposing physical presence as a comic tool, first by appearing to be the meekest of the group, and then by declaring in a foul-mouthed manner that he is done being the nice guy. Daniels speaks volumes with his smirks and eye-rolls, hardly hiding his lack of interest about the boys’ altercation. In one of the funniest moments, when Alan seems to be

headed to console Veronica, Daniels hesitates ever so slightly before gliding by her to get another drink. Davis handles the most physically demanding role as Annette, who is on the verge of throwing up much of the evening. Her venomous delivery escalates a monologue about Alan’s weak character to the point that Annette’s every word appears to wound him. The wildest explosions, however, come from Harden, in part because Veronica is the most reasonable participant. Harden’s fullbody shakes and spastic screams tread wonderfully close to going over-the-top. This is also where Warchus’ skill is most evident. His precise blocking helps define ever-changing alliances within the group, and he never takes it too far… until it’s time to take it too far. God of Carnage may be a formula that Reza has heavily mined, but each time she finds an original bent. Best of all, she never appears to be making a grand statement about the basest instincts of men and women, and instead lets the viewer draw the conclusions. Some of the script’s nuances are sure to be lost with less talented directors and performers. Fortunately, that is not a problem audiences at the Ahmanson will face. God of Carnage runs through May 29 at the Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., (213) 972-4400 or centertheatregroup.org.

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