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June 30, 2009

God of Carnage

by Jesse North

Does trying to score discount tickets to a show a week after it won the Tony for Best Play seem overambitious? Not if you just played The Ultimate Rush.

Since God of Carnage did, in fact, win that prestigious award just a week before I decided to get standing-room-only tickets for it, I knew I’d have to get to the theater early. (It’s one of those pesky shows that doesn’t offer a student rush. Excuuuse me!) Thanks to a summer Fridays policy at my work, I was able to arrive at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre at 3:45 p.m. (standing tickets go on sale two hours prior to the performance). I was the first on line, and thus, felt pretty confident in my chances of getting a ticket. I had asked the box office attendant where we standing-room hopefuls should line up. I always think that’s a smart way to go; it’s better than having them rearrange the line later because you’ve all formed in the wrong place. Not long after I took my place outside the theater, about 25 people joined me in line, and over the course of two hours, we experienced The Rush of Dumb Questions. “Are you in line?” a woman asked no one in particular in our linear formation. “Are you waiting for tickets?” a woman queried me (being at the head of the line also has its disadvantages). The taker has to be the woman who asked, “What are you waiting for?” Me: “Standing room tickets.” Woman: “So you stand?” (pause) Me: “Yes.” Don’t they read this blog?? But all was made better when a very enthusiastic, possibly homeless man (who am I to assume?) answered a young couple who asked him if the show offered marked-down tickets. “This show doesn’t have discounts! Do you know how many Tonys they won??” At 6:10 p.m. (a little late), the box office attendant ushered us into the lobby. I purchased my standing room ticket for $26.50 (you can buy up to two) and “prepared myself for the chaos and the carnage,” as the theater usher would ask me, deadpanned, later when I took my spot for the performance.

Yasmina Reza’s play is a study of behavior when people are faced with conflict. Although the four characters are parents (and accurately portray how parents act when faced with matters involving their children), they highlight behaviors that lie in all of us, that most would be embarrassed to admit.

Alan and Annette (Jeff Daniels and Hope Davis) meet at Michael and Veronica’s (James Gandolfini and Marcia Gay Harden) home after their son struck their son with a stick, knocking out his tooth, following a verbal conflict. The two sets of parents are left to decide the course of action they, or their sons, should take to resolve the matter. But egos and unbridled anger bubble beneath the surfaces of their put-on smiles, and soon give way to a volcano of parental pyre. The story is simple, and so is the piece. Yet while it doesn’t have many marks to hit, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t hit every one of them straight on.

With some plays, the actors need only speak the words for the magic to take place. In God of Carnage, the play rests on the actors’ shoulders. And these guys have been benchpressing. The foursome is a delight and knows just where to tickle the audience. Davis and Harden know just how to play the notes of pained awkwardness, and Gandolfini chimes in with the perfect, dry comment that doesn’t help their characters’ situation. Daniels’ is left with the least to work with of the four, but carries off a great recurring act of the rudeness of an endlessly ringing cell phone. Harden’s anger-turned-to-physical-violence routine is a bit overboard for my taste, but it’s a crowd pleaser. And when Gandolfini drops the restrained, amicable act halfway through the play, its as if the audience sighs in delight, “That’s the guy we’ve been waiting for!”

The set is no great accomplishment to speak of, nor does it have to be. But there is an aspect of Mark Thompson’s design that struck me. There is a massive back wall in Michael and Veronica’s livingroom. The clay-colored divide is artfully cracked throughout. It stands as a subtle symbol of the steadily declining niceties in the room, and the loyalty lines of marriage that are fading before the audience’s eyes. The deep red that covers the floor and walls (it looks like the characters are in a livingroom in hell)—not so subtle.

Entertaining performances aside, the play didn’t seem to live up to the hype. If it weren’t for the top-of-the-A-list cast, I don’t think it would be enjoying the commercial success that it is, nor would it have won the Tony. There was nothing significant to be taken away. Angry people behaving deplorably? It’s nothing we have haven’t seen before.

Play: B- / Rush: B+

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