God of Carnage? Fierce, hilarious, appalling — a very dark dysfunctional farce. It’s very funny, outrageously so at times. Sharply written and acted with dazzle and finesse by four crackling leads — Jeff Daniels, Marcia Gay Harden, James Gandolfini and Hope Davis. Who play suburban couples meeting to discuss a violent altercation between their respective sons. You may go in knowing what’s to come, but the anger, disdain and self-disgust that gradually push through are snarlier and more manic than you might expect.
And if you have any rot or mildew or serpents festering inside, a play as well done as this is pure pleasure.
God of Carnage lasts about 90 minutes, I think. It may not have started precisely at 8 pm, so maybe it’s more like 85 minutes. No intermission. But what a fierce workout! Everyone is mad and sweating and drained by the end. Hats off to all four. Great hilarity mixed with patches of despair. Perfectly balanced and honed. I hate my life and you too! Blecchhh!
The basic idea is that beasts and bile lie within everyone, ready to pounce and lash out, and it doesn’t take much to prod the shit into the open, especially with a quart of top-grade rum at the ready. It’s been said that Gods is half British-refined and half farcical in the French sense of that term. For me, the ease of the transition from one to the other is what matters, and I was seriously impressed.
Is God of Carnage as precise and ambitious as it could be in making these four characters represent, in a thorough and particular way, the malignancies of greater society? Is it as thoughtful and primal and thematically profound as it ought to be? Maybe not entirely, but it sure hit the bell for me. Farce can’t take too many breathers or shift gears too often. Some London critics, I realize, were slightly mixed about the production that opened there last March, and it’s conceivable that some might quibble about this or that when it opens later this month.
But the French-speaking author Yasmina Reza and her British translator, Christopher Hampton, obviously made decisions in a clear-headed way that they knew would make the play into this rather than that. They had to decide based on the requirements of the form. Farce has to be done with concentration, precision and rigorous discipline, and the God of Carnage gang (including director Matthew Warchus) know exactly what they’re doing. Okay, it may not be Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, but it’s a lot funnier. And just as angry.
The conversation in God of Carnage starts out politely, correctly, considerately and then, slightly and almost imperceptibly, relations start to decline. They degrade and degenerate into bitter, adolescent, at times close-to-submental rage. Which leads to alcohol, incredible ferocity and despair and a question at the every end — “What do we know?”
For what it’s worth, the audience knew. Everyone immediately leapt to their feet at the curtain call. No hesitation, clapping and cheering their tails off. I looked around and figured the crowd was maybe one-third tourists, one-third Sopranos fans, and one-third sophisticated theatre mavens.
Here’s a Playbill podcast interview with all four actors speaking.
Oh, and there’s a splendid special effect that comes along at the halfway mark. Won’t say any more than that.