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Margaret Croyden

God of Carnage

God of Carnage by Yasmina Reza
Directed by Matthew Warchus
with Jeff Daniels, Hope Davis, James Gandolfini and Marcia Gay Harden
Bernard Jacobs Theater 242 West 45th Street
opened March 22
Reviewed March 23, 2009 by Margaret Croyden

Yasmina Reza, who gave us the delightful play "Art," has delivered another memorable work, full of humor, gaiety, and a certain madness, all within the framework of a hilarious farce. Underneath the comedy are Reza's ideas on marriage, children, Wall Street, do-gooders, poseurs, liars and fools --emblems of the bourgeois class which she patently scorns.

To get her ideas across without being too pedantic, Ms. Reza has drawn up a farcical plot, something she is really good at. Two couples meet to discuss their children's fight. One boy has hit the other with a stick knocking out his two teeth, for which his parents expect compensation.

All is amiable and polite and the parents even decide that the boys should meet to discuss their problems. They all seem rational and well behaved --for a while. Soon bits of nastiness appear. One of the men (Jeff Daniels), a cell phone freak, is forever on his phone to give directions or receive news about his investments in his pharmaceutical company. Dominating the stage, Daniels is the funniest actor in the show. The other parent, (played by James Goldolfini, who is married to Marcia Gay Harden) begins by being soft spoken and polite. He is an ordinary goods salesman and although he seems reasonable, he later turns into a swearing, violent, loud mouth, frustrated husband, berating his wife for acting like a "savior" because of her volunteer work for Dafur.

She, a pretentious writer of historical art is just as phoney as her husband. But listening to his insults, she too turns violent. In a hilarious bit of business she jumps on the couch where he is reclining and ferociously pummels him. After a while, the wife of the telephone freak, (Hope Davis) although sweet, obedient, and well mannered, goes berserk--and vomits, literally--on stage all over the expensive table, and the precious art books prominently displayed. The cleaning up part is another comical bit. Cans of spray, a hair drier, various towels and rags are brought out to clean up the mess. If this is not enough, this so called sweet tempered woman has a fit and throws her husband's cell phone in a glass vase full of water, destroys all the flowers in vases, the expensive floor rugs and everything else. In the end, they all sit there among the ruins.

What is often hilarious theatrics, beneath the surface is a serious criticism of modern society, its mores, its phoniness, its pretensions, and its predilection for violence and destruction. For example, Marcia Gay Harden as the woman working for peace in Africa is married to a chauvinist (James Gandolfini) who makes racists remarks. She prizes herself as a writer, a fighter for the rights of man, a believer in the humanities, but she herself is violent and quick to use her fists despite her femininity. Then there is the obvious sweet tempered woman who suffers nausea and retches as she watches yet again her husband and his phone. She like all the rest of them: she is a screamer and good at vitriol.

The playwright can find nothing at the end of the tunnel to counteract these couples' nastiness. They, like their children, all behave like savages. Ms. Reza is painting a picture of today's society--its wars, its brutality, wall street and phony altruism. These characters are the destroyers of the world, although they pretend something else. Though the play is a hilarious farce its deeper meaning is not lost.

The cast is first rate. Everyone is brilliant. Jeff Daniels as the telephone freak is a scene stealer. Everyone knows such a type. James Gandolfini is benign at first only to show his true colors later on. Marcia Gay Harden as the ferocious intellectual and defender of the humanities (with her collections of art books) is hilarious but one cannot overlook Hope Davis, who cannot keep her stomach in check and as sweet as she seems to be, displays the savagery of a killer, retching first and then destroying everything in the living room.

The director, Matthew Warchus, is a genius at staging farce. I saw his production of "Boing, Boing" at the beginning of last season and it too was a smash. Mr. Warchus knows how to direct. Nothing escapes him and every moment is detailed. A perfectly delightful evening. Don't miss this.

Margaret Croyden's latest book is "Conversations with Peter Brook, 1970-2000" (Fairer, Straus and Giroux).

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