BOTTOM LINE: The performances don’t make up for an insubstantial play that only pretends to be insightful; given the high price of tickets, I’d skip this one.
Every so often a play comes to Broadway that everyone agrees is not really all that great, but because of the specific circumstances, somehow manages to be a runaway hit at the box office. God of Carnage by Yasmina Reza fits that description to a tee. It seems to be popular with audiences; the Wednesday matinee crowd (a sold-out house) laughed loudly throughout. But I constantly had the feeling that I was watching a very expensive sitcom about rich people. A well-acted sitcom, but a sitcom nonetheless.
Many critics commented that the script is mediocre at best, and I wholeheartedly agree. I found the play contrived, and not at all thought-provoking. Married couple Alan and Annette (Jeff Daniels and Hope Davis) have come to the house of Michael and Veronica (James Gandolfini and Marcia Gay Harden) to discuss an incident: Alan and Annette’s son has hit Michael and Veronica’s son in the face with a stick, breaking two of his teeth. What is initially a civil discussion turns ugly, and we quickly see how four seemingly mature adults can turn into children, or rather, into uncivilized adults. The trouble with all this is, so what? Adults can misbehave? Men and women are different? Cell phones are annoying? Yawn.
I had a big problem with the circumstances of the play. I kept asking myself, why don’t these people leave? Alan and Annette come close to walking out several times, but the fact that they don’t just feels contrived. I couldn’t help but think “no one would ever do that,” and while I realize this is fiction, I found the unbelievability of the play to be a constant distraction. This never really becomes absurdist theatre, or even farce, because God of Carnage is always strongly connected to “real life.” The fact that it is far-fetched was, for me at least, a problem.
The four actors (who all received Tony nominations) do an excellent job however, and this is why some may wish to see the play anyway. I thought Marcia Gay Harden was far and away the best; she was the only one who made me laugh out loud, making me forget (momentarily) how bland the whole play was. Jeff Daniels was also good as the cell-phone addicted lawyer (I’m not sure if Reza intended this, but I was most sympathetic to his character, in spite of or perhaps because of the fact that Alan is obnoxious and cynical). And director Matthew Warchus (who also directed The Norman Conquests and was Tony-nominated for both) does what he can here, alternating bursts of intense fighting with periods of quiet lulls.
I’ll admit, I was sitting in the back of the mezzanine, and I might have enjoyed it more if I was sitting much closer, so I could better enjoy the subtleties of the four performances. But ultimately, I didn’t like the play very much at all, and certainly not what I’d expect of a “Best Play” Tony nominee. (I won’t be surprised if it wins either, since this has been such a lackluster year for new plays on Broadway. Of the four nominated plays, I think the best is Horton Foote’s Dividing the Estate, which has already closed).
I’m all for plays being silly, not everything needs to be thought-provoking. So why did I find the lightness of God of Carnage so annoying? I think because it doesn’t claim to be simply silly. It pretends to be insightful and profound. I constantly got the feeling that God of Carnage was trying to tell me about “the human condition” or some other similarly lofty goal. And it was this pseudo-intellectualism that really bothered me. Reza won many awards for her play Art, and this is a play in a similar vein: an initially humdrum circumstance progresses until things devolve and the characters show their true selves. But whereas Art gave us three well-developed characters, God of Carnage is much more primitive...we get “man” and “woman” rather than fully developed people. And this isn’t the fault of the actors, but of the writing. Perhaps this primitiveness is intentional. After all, if God of Carnage says anything, it is that all of us have the capability of losing control and becoming less civilized. But in my opinion, it doesn’t make a satisfying play.
Why is this play doing so well? First, there is the all-star cast, and while there are many plays this season with one or two "names", none have four. And all four give strong performances. But ultimately, while we often give passes to musicals that are just silly fun, God of Carnage makes it clear that many are just as willing to do so with plays. It is selling extremely well, and I regret not seeing the play during previews (when a good seat would have been cheaper). Now, even the worst seat is $67. (However, if you do find yourself in the rear mezz, you won’t have trouble hearing anything. The sound design was excellent, and I could even hear Alan’s phone vibrating whenever it rang). While I didn’t take advantage of it, if you want to see the show and money is tight, I would suggest trying for standing room. The play is only 90 minutes, and at $26.50, you might actually feel you got your money’s worth. But ultimately, I’d recommend many other plays over this one. And don’t get me wrong, if you go you will likely laugh and you may even enjoy yourself. But I think you can get a similar experience by staying home and watching 30 Rock or The Office (or whatever TV show makes you laugh). When I go to the theatre I want something more, and God of Carnage certainly didn’t give it to me.
(God of Carnage plays at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, 242 W. 45th St, through August 2nd. Performances are Tue at 7 PM, Wed through Sat at 8 PM, with matinees on Wed and Sat at 2 PM, and Sun at 3 PM. Running time is approximately 90 minutes, with no intermission. Tickets are $66.50- $116.50, and $26.50 standing room tickets are available if the performance is sold out. Visit telecharge.com to buy tickets and godofcarnage.com for more information.)