Monday, March 23, 2009

God of Carnage


By Yasmina Reza. Translated by Christopher Hampton. Directed by Matthew Warchus. Bernard Jacobs Theatre.

Consistently strong raves greet Yasmina Reza's brittle, brutal new farce about the thin veneer of bourgeouis civility, with especially high marks going to Matthew Warchus' deft farcical direction, Mark Thompson's sleek set, and the four-member cast. (Note: As of Dec. 9, a new cast reopened in the play, to slightly less stellar reviews; an update post, though not a new grade, appears here.) Several critics lead with the celebrity angle--look, it's Tony Soprano, in a play!--and just as many, while praising James Gandolfini and co-stars Jeff Daniels and Hope Davis, conclude that Marcia Gay Harden, as Gandolfini's pent-up wife, walks away with the show. Though a few find it intellectually as well as theatrically satisfying, even many of the show's admirers are cool to Reza's cynical message and prefab plotting, while the biggest dissenter here,'s Martin Denton, has a thoroughly original objection to the production's style.

The Star A+
(Richard Ouzounian) Theatre this clever requires consummate teamwork from top to bottom and that's what we get here. Reza's writing (superbly translated from the French by Christopher Hampton) takes us along the road to hell step by step with gossamer skill. Director Matthew Warchus is able to modulate his staging from polite coffee-table banter to full body-press violence and the four cast members – Jeff Daniels, Hope Davis, James Gandolfini and Marcia Gay Harden – are all the kind of courageous troupers you would like to have with you on beach at Normandy, as well as on the stage of a hit Broadway show...God of Carnage is that rare play which will not only surprise you and entertain you, but give you plenty to discuss for hours afterwards.

The New Yorker A
(John Lahr) Dark and hilarious...In ninety minutes of sustained mayhem, however, Reza wipes the masks of sang-froid off her whole monstrous regiment and demonstrates just how thin a line lies between civility and barbarity...As Freud tells us in “Civilization and Its Discontents,” we have to repress our infantile aggression in order for civilization to survive. But it’s worth paying top dollar to see those feelings acted out by an expert ensemble. And no bleating about the cruelty of farce, please. As Reza knows and so gleefully shows, without a killing there is no feast.

Associated Press A
(Michael Kuchwara) Hilarious yet surprisingly thoughtful...Reza's play is brief, barely 85 minutes, but it packs a lot into those increasingly heated exchanges. The actors have expertly tapped into Reza's sense of heightened reality, a reality reflected in the production's stylized, red-carpeted living-room set (courtesy of designer Mark Thompson) framed by a blindingly white proscenium...The real revelation of the evening, though, is Harden, usually seen in much more somber roles...Credit for much of the show's giddy forward motion should go to the director. Warchus is something of a Reza expert, having directed many of her English-language productions including "Art," "Life (x) 3" and "The Unexpected Man." But nothing in those previous efforts, prepared us for the almost balletic displays of movement that are on display here.

NY Observer A
(John Heilpern) Ms. Reza...seems to think she’s Jean-Paul Sartre...We’re obliged to distinguish, then, between what the lady is actually doing and what old Jean-Paul called le bullsheet. Fortunately, what Ms. Reza has done with God of to write a welcome boulevard comedy polished to a high gloss by her frequent translator, Christopher Hampton...Thankfully, Ms. Reza makes only fleeting allusion to the tragedy of civil war in Darfur, while her boisterous 85-minute light comedy proves a triumph of escalating farce. The marvelously paced production confirms—if confirmation is needed—the Brit Matthew Warchus as a leading director on both sides of the Atlantic.

Bloomberg News A
(John Simon) What a pleasant surprise to share a walloping good time with the audience at this comedy, whose ferocious title paradoxically reinforces the subtly furibund fun...In best farce tradition, this is an actors’ and director’s holiday. With the text an effective blueprint, director Matthew Warchus and his dazzling cast conjure up a comic war zone where, unexpectedly, enemies morph into allies, married couples into adversaries and attacks, some physical, leave everyone hurt and enraged...The god of comedy is served every bit as well as his colleague of carnage.

The Record A
(Robert Feldberg) Evenings in the theater don't get any funnier than God of Carnage, Yasmina Reza's romp through the weed-filled garden of modern marriage...Matthew Warchus has directed the 90-minute piece brilliantly, capturing each nuance of behavior while also masterfully choreographing the physical chaos. And the cast couldn't be better, with each of the fine actors heartily grabbing the superb material and running with it.

Talkin' Broadway A
(Matthew Murray) Blisteringly outrageous...The seemingly innocuous meeting between four ostensibly level-headed people that almost instantly devolves into catastrophic combat that wreaks havoc on families and psyches is a fiery realization of every civilized person’s unspoken nightmare. But as performed by Jeff Daniels, Hope Davis, James Gandolfini, and Marcia Gay Harden under Matthew Warchus’s direction, the most maniacally mundane of horrors becomes magically theatrical...Reza and Christopher Hampton, who has translated Reza’s play from the original French, make clear that this story is less about parents and children than about humanity’s inherent violent childishness...It’s astringently serious stuff, but there’s almost nothing heavy-handed about its treatment. Warchus’s staging is frank, but also buoyant and brutal, ebbing and flowing between light and the dark as smoothly as the characters’ moods do.

The New York Times A-
(Ben Brantley) Never underestimate the pleasure of watching really good actors behaving terribly...Examined coldly, this 90-minute play about two couples who meet to discuss a playground fight between two of their children isn’t much more than a sustained Punch and Judy show, dressed to impress with sociological accessories. But there’s a reason that Punch and Judy’s avatars have fascinated audiences for so many centuries in cultural forms low (“The Honeymooners” of 1950s television) and high (Edward Albee’s 1962 drama “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”). “God of Carnage,” which is poised somewhere in between, definitely delivers the cathartic release of watching other people’s marriages go boom...Warchus is the man who transformed the sniggering 1960s sex comedy “Boeing-Boeing” into one of last season’s great delights on Broadway, and I can’t think of another working director who better understands the higher mathematics of farce.

Newsday A-
(Linda Winer) What fun...There isn't a false cue in "God of Carnage," Yasmina Reza's brutally entertaining 85-minute satire that opened last night at the Jacobs Theatre with a four-star quartet of dazzling performers - one of whom happens to be James Gandolfini...Like "Art," Reza's globally successful '90s play about male friendship and modern art, this one is a fast-moving extended sketch that's never much deeper than its big-issue smart-talk veneer. But the French playwright - in another of Christopher Hampton's exquisite translations - cannily manipulates social observations that appeal to vast audiences and creates characters that bring out the best in actors...Less profound than a marriage play by Edward Albee, but much more than a sitcom. It also has the very best scene of projectile vomit since Linda Blair.

The Daily News A-
(Joe Dziemianowicz) It’s sort of a “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” meets “Survivor.” Once rum starts flowing, it gets louder, uglier and funnier. Which isn’t to say that “God” is especially deep. We know people are savages at heart. And Reza relies on creaky devices to push the plot, like convenient calls from Michael’s mom. But working from a shrewd translation by Christopher Hampton, director Matthew Warchus, who staged last season’s rollicking “Boeing-Boeing,” keeps the fur flying and the laughter landing.

Variety A-
(David Rooney) The fanged comedy picks an easy target in the complacent bourgeoisie. But the savagery of its dissection of interpersonal politics--marital, sexual and civic--is played to perfection by a scorching cast in Matthew Warchus' pungent production...Aided by regular translator Christopher Hampton, Reza has crafted tantalizing blueprints for four distinct characters to be fleshed out by a quartet of resourceful actors...All four characters could easily have tipped over into grotesque loathsomeness, but Warchus and his impeccable ensemble make them just pretentious, unfeeling and self-absorbed enough to get under the skin while still sharing traits with most moderately well-heeled New Yorkers...From verbal zingers to sly physical humor, the timing is superb...Like its title, "God of Carnage" is not always the subtlest play; it doesn't go deep and it's not without its repetitive passages. But it's elegant, acerbic and entertainingly fueled on pure bile. It's Reza's sharpest work since "Art."

New York Post A-
(Elisabeth Vincentelli) After making you laugh, though, Yasmina Reza's "God of Carnage" leaves a bitter aftertaste. This Howitzer blast against bourgeois-bohemian hypocrisy could easily be staged as a drama. But it certainly isn't done that way here, and that's just fine it's been a while since Broadway's seen such gleefully nasty fun...As she did in "Art," Reza dissects upper-middle-class foils with precision and a welcome mean streak, but her plays don't amount to all that much once the smoke has cleared...Her dramatic devices aren't all that innovative, either--puking is a cheap way to get a laugh. It's also a diabolically efficient one, especially in the hands of director Matthew Warchus and his expert cast. After "Boeing-Boeing," Britain's Warchus confirms his uncanny command of spatial relations and sleek aesthetics, undoubtedly the most underused weapons in comedy...As for the actors, what glorious pleasure they are.

The Hollywood Reporter A-
(Frank Scheck) A raucously funny boulevard comedy that should prove future catnip to performers during its inevitable lengthy run...The play doesn't really have the heft to sustain its somewhat strained thematic premise. But thanks to witty dialogue and incisive characterizations, it's wonderful fun nonetheless. Matthew Warchus has staged the farcical proceedings to comic perfection, with the physical (and sometimes gross) slapstick humor expertly rendered.

Chicago Tribune A-
(Chris Jones) Savvy and deliciously caustic...Reza is an intentionally slippery and occasionally glib writer who maintains a certain irritating distance from the topical issues she brings up, and "Carnage" will be seen by some as overly pat, opportunist and bourgeoise. It is, to a point. But this is more visceral, more culturally specific, and thus far better, than "Art," a benign soupcon compared with this very cleverly structured and frequently hilarious communal meltdown. Gandolfini—a Meisner-trained actor who leads a terrific, notably spontaneous cast that's deliciously willing and able to react to each other—is, of course, the master of the teddy bear turned viper...The piece remains farcical, yet every middle-age yuppie (in a theater full of them) knows the truth behind the meltdown of two marriages that turns into a vicariously pleasurable battle of the sexes. "God of Carnage" is the ideal comedy for a nasty recession, because it provides us with a cathartic release in an era when we are so mad at so many things but (speaking for myself, anyway) not really in a position to do much about any of them.

American Theatre Web A-
(Andy Propst) A thoughtful premise that can invoke gales of laughter. In Matthew Warchus' stylish production...Reza's quartet of outer borough combatants are impeccably brought to life by four stage and screen veterans...As much fun as there is to be had in "Carnage," the piece has its darker message and there are some questions or issues that it raises that feel under-developed or explored...Overall though, theatergoers will most likely not quibble with the former details as there's just too much fun to be had "Carnage," where four consummate actors are working at the top of their game.

Village Voice B+
(Michael Feingold) Another of those Yasmina Reza plays that, translated by Christopher Hampton and directed by Matthew Warchus, have become a kind of commercial-theater tic since the team's big success with Art, which at the time looked like a fresh twist on boulevard entertainment. But now, after three or four trips through Reza's sensibility, we know the pattern too well...What these four inventive actors can do is make the play's chug-chug trip through all the possible permutations of the setup seem natural...The uniformly high quality of their work presumably owes something to Warchus's direction, though apart from Art, his New York track record, as a handler of actors, has been on the dismal side...Maybe it was the simple combination of personalities he cast, since all four are at the top of their form...As for Gandolfini, only two things need be said: Welcome to a comic actor of the very first rank, and why didn't somebody think of casting him as Nathan Detroit?

Backstage B+
(David Sheward) A well-crafted playwriting exercise rather than a believable character study. Early on, Reza plants seemingly insignificant details like time bombs, and they explode later with devastating impact. She also knows exactly how to time a joke for maximum reaction, and she cleverly groups and regroups the combatants in different alliances so you don't always know who is on whose side. Kudos also to Christopher Hampton's adaptation from the original French, which transplants the action to tony Park Slope without any noticeable losses in transit. You can see the wiring in this precision machine, but thanks to a stellar cast and impeccable direction by Matthew Warchus, Carnage is a feast for both actors and audience.

Time Out NY B+
(David Cote) The author's most satisfying work since Art (1998), which also balances her very French tendency to jumble philosophy and farce with a surgical dissection of bourgeois pretension and slippery social identity. Matthew Warchus masterfully stages the work, heeding the playwright's command to eschew strict naturalism and embrace the artificial nature of the action. The characters exist as stock types (Daniels as the callous lawyer and Davis as an icy wealth-management consultant), yet the loopier script convulsions allow for ridiculous (and theatrically bracing) psychological leaps. Framed by Mark Thompson's looming, stylized set (suggesting a modernist-chic abbatoir), this skilled quartet makes wonderful music—part classical harmony, part wilderness howl.

USA Today B+
(Elysa Gardner) Scabrously funny...It's just a matter of time before the meeting devolves into an orgy of verbal and physical brawling — and a showcase for first-rate ensemble acting. Jeff Daniels makes Alan as entertaining as he would be insufferable in real life. James Gandolfini's Michael emerges as his milder, earthier foil, at least until his temper reveals a misguided machismo that would make Tony Soprano squirm. Annette, too, lets her guard down; Hope Davis exquisitely charts her evolution from prim to nauseous to feisty to languorously drunk. As Veronica, the frustrated do-gooder, Marcia Gay Harden manages to be divinely irritating and moving, driving home the redeeming neediness and uncertainty that link humans to more sympathetic life forms.

Lighting and Sound America B+
(David Barbour) Reza isn't so much a playwright as she is a zookeeper, assembling menageries of irritable little beasts and prodding them into displays of bad behavior. In this, she is part of a long and honorable postwar European tradition, including, but not limited to, Jean-Paul Sartre and Luis Bunuel...But she lacks the philosophical framework of a Sartre and the élan and sophistication of such Bunuel film classics as The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. When one of her plays entertains, it's because she's coasting on the talents of collaborators who know how to make high-style mayhem out of her gimlet-eyed observations. This isn't the first time that she has benefitted from a translation by Christopher Hampton and direction by Matthew Warchus, but this may be the most felicitous example of their collaboration...Everyone jumps through the Reza's hoops with superb skill, keeping us amused at their awfulness, while cleverly preventing us from turning away in revulsion...While it may be tempting to dismiss her as a one-trick pony, God of Carnage has a certain stinging relevance.

NY1 B+
(Roma Torre) Not quite a fully realized play, it's an extended situation comedy featuring two couples meeting to discuss a playground fight between their 11-year-old sons...Besides being exceptionally funny, there are several shocking moments in this play that are bound to take you by complete surprise. Reza's message is not terribly original, that beneath our civilized skins, if provoked enough we're all reduced to barbarians...The great joy in this production is in the way these outstanding actors bite into their roles. There's some scenery chewing as well.

AM New York B+
(Matt Windman) Just like Reza’s hit play “Art,” God of Carnage” makes for 90 well-crafted, extremely enjoyable minutes of theater brimming with black comedy plus critical examinations of shallow bourgeois etiquette. But what really drives this production is director Matthew Warchus (“Boeing-Boeing”), who orchestrates pitch-perfect comic timing among his absolutely excellent quartet of actors...Bottom line: “God of Carnage” is a genuine crowd-pleaser. All of the comedic elements are in place and the cast cannot be better. Among the many celeb-driven plays now opening en masse, this savage social comedy is definitely worth catching.

Los Angeles Times B
(Charles McNulty) Even more puncturing of bourgeois self-regard than “Art”...It’s also just as sleekly schematic, the action efficiently distilled to make a big cynical point about those most pompously self-deluding creatures known as Homo sapiens...Fortunately, the presence of four of the more theatrically talented members of the species...adds diverse personality to a work that is très- très -français in its marriage of mechanical boulevard comedy and abstract drama of ideas...“God of Carnage” may have the feel of a play in which characters have no choice but to fall in line with their playwright’s nihilistic manipulations, but with actors this ferociously robust, human nature seems to have its own incorrigible agenda.

Theatermania B
(David Finkle) There are several things wrong with Yasmina Reza's God of Carnage...But almost none of those flaws ultimately matters much, because the soigne yet knockabout comedy at the Bernard B. Jacobs is simply too entertaining from fade-in to inconclusive fade-out, especially as sleekly translated by Reza's usual go-to guy, Christopher Hampton, well directed by Matthew Warchus, and beautifully performed by four top-drawer actors...[Reza's] message that rational human behavior is no more than a thin veneer over animal urges may not be true of us all...So what if Reza is on a soapbox about humanity's weak underpinnings? The bubbles rising from the soap are buoyant.

New York B-
(Scott Brown) Why does God of Carnage, for all its witty anarchy and farcical cheek, feel a little flabby in the gut, a little punch-drunk and glass-jawed—and, even at 85 minutes, a little padded? Maybe because it’s all too easy. This fight feels fixed: the punches telegraphed, the reversals rehearsed. The cozy bassinet of gentrified Brooklyn (where child-rearing is art form, fashion statement, and blood sport, all in one) is about as big a bull’s-eye as the boulevard affords...Even the casting feels too perfect, as if calculated by some Netflix algorithm...Despite repeated references to Darfur and the ICC, Reza doesn’t really have the stomach for a blood-feast: Try as she might, she lacks Mamet’s misanthropy...Reza toys with something primal and sanguinary, but what she’s prepared to deliver is a puggle-on-puggle dogfight, played out in the safe precincts of Prospect Park. The results are curious, pathetic, often amusing, but nothing, really, is at stake. B-
(Martin Denton) Very funny for a while, but starts to feel like meanness about halfway in...Warchus has cast four more-than-competent dramatic actors—James Gandolfini and Marcia Gay Harden as the Vallons, Jeff Daniels and Hope Davis as the Raleighs—in roles that seem to cry out for outsized clowns. Reza's tragedy is diminished to sitcom ordinariness: it functions, but it doesn't attain the level of grandeur that I think it deserves...This is exacerbated by Warchus's slow, naturalistic staging, which is punctuated with many long, awkward pauses...There is much that's resonant to take away from God of Carnage...But when I left the theatre, I felt that I hadn't seen the play's true potential realized.

The Star A+ 14; The New Yorker A 13; Associated Press A 13; NYO A 13; Bloomberg News A 13; The Record A 13; Talkin' Broadway A 13; The New York Times A- 12; Newsday A- 12; The Daily News A- 12; Variety A- 12; New York Post A- 12; The Hollywood Reporter A- 12; Chicago Tribune A- 12; American Theatre Web A- 12; VV B+ 11; Backstage B+ 11; Time Out NY B+ 11; USA Today B+ 11; LS&A B+ 11; NY1 B+ 11; AM New York B+ 11; Los Angeles Times B 10; Theatermania B 10; NY mag B- 9; B- 9; TOTAL: 303/26=11.65 (A-)

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