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it all comes down to a god of carnage
how broadway's comedy of manners soars... without any manners
by alex b (@Lexistential)
pop culture

Inside every polite social gathering is a playground brawl capable of exploding. Especially if it involves James Gandolfini.

French writer Yasmina Reza would never have known that the former "Sopranos" icon would be cast in the New York production of her play when it was first performed at Zurich in 2006. But, with her depiction of people able to disregard their self-perceptions of genteel civility at the drop of a dime, she certainly knew "God of Carnage" would push more than a few buttons.

The play is set around two sets of parents discussing an altercation between their eleven-year-old boys; Alan and Annette's son has knocked out both incisors of Michael and Veronica's child with a stick. Comments become increasingly personal as they argue about their children's actions, and the afternoon rapidly disintegrates into the Broadway version of a reality show train-wreck. Amidst thrown tulips and memorable screaming matches, James Gandolfini, Jeff Daniels, Hope Davis, and Marcia Gay Harden, each show just how easy it is for raw aggression to push aside seemingly irrelevant manners and marital ties.

Though his name elicits thoughts of Dumb and Dumber, Jeff Daniels is anything but stupid as Alan. Playing a lawyer who never stops taking calls in the middle of conversation and handling damage control for a dubious pharmaceutical drug, it's a treat to see the cinematically affable Daniels inhabit the character with the skill of a born cynic. Alan doesn't see the afternoon as anything more than unnecessary nitpicking; announcing that he believes in a "god of carnage" to the chagrin of everyone else present. There's nothing anyone can do to change the savage nature of the world, and he's not about to lift a finger.

Anxious and sick from Alan's disturbingly honest declarations, Hope Davis reveals Annette to be a woman on the perpetual edge of a nervous breakdown, in spite of an appearance of serene gentility. She's the most self-contained and least overt of the cast, but through her subtle performance, the "In Treatment" actress shows that seemingly passive women can get aggressive too. When Davis truly explodes, it's both symbolic and physically stunning— to the point of making James Gandolfini frenetically run for a blow-dryer, and demonstrating that even the mousier, dutiful types should be anything but weakly typecast when provoked.

Playing a liberal African culture specialist, Marcia Gay Harden plays Veronica with vigor, earnestness, and a slight streak of condescension for those who have never learned four-syllable versions of basic vocabulary. Veronica, a passionate defender of Darfur, bristles quickly at any contradiction to her perceptions; in Harden's capable hands, she ruffles to the point of histrionic gold just to stand up Western civilization. Harden will most likely earn a Tony nomination for her performance, especially for showing just how quickly the high-minded get down and degenerate, in spite of their own efforts to stand away from the maddening, vulgar crowd.

Rounding out the cast is none other than James Gandolfini as blue-collar, household goods dealer Michael. Though the volatile ghost of Tony Soprano looms large, Michael isn't responsible for anyone dying in "God of Carnage", but his underhanded dealings with his daughter's treasured (and missing) hamster compose some of the show's most hilarious moments. Gandolfini likewise invests Michael with an easygoing temperament and almost giddy comic style. But, when Michael finally loses his temper in the face of everyone else behaving badly around him, not only does Gandolfini authentically reveal the jaded, angry aspects that can lurk under any seemingly simple guy, but he reminds people of why he was able to make a New Jersey mobster memorable.

Any theatergoer who opts to see "God of Carnage" should prepare for the sheer pleasure of watching some of today's best actors singe through deftly written dialogue that's perfectly on point. But, if there's anything to take from the show, it's that Reza's mirror of civilization isn't a funhouse distortion, but painfully real. There is a God, and like it or not, his carnage lurks in every little moment of existence.

And, just for good measure, it may be safer not to bring a date.


An expert in coloring outside the lines while reading between them, Alex B has a head for business, bod for sin, and weakness for ice cream during all seasons. Apart from watching Bravo marathons and enjoying haute bites here and there, she writes about TV, pop culture, and coloring outside even more lines. She sneaks Tweets via @lexistential.

more about alex b


i'm about to lose control (and i don't like it)
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published: 8.22.06

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sandra thompson
4.21.09 @ 8:12a

What wouldn't I give to ride the Silver Meteor up to The City and see this play!!! I've learned to trust your taste, and I have really enjoyed the work of all these actors in the past. Thanks for the heads up. Sigh!

alex b
4.21.09 @ 7:04p

Sandra, thanks! The minute I heard about the casting, I was all over this play. Jeff Daniels was especially good playing against type. James Gandolfini and Marcia Gay Harden were really good together. If you have a chance, come on up, since the show runs through the summer.

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