'God of Carnage'


Two well-dressed, middle-aged couples sit opposite each other in a beautifully appointed living room surrounded by fresh flowers sitting in glass vases. They share espresso, Italian pastries, some fine rum and Cuban cigars. Lavish art books adorn the coffee table in the middle of the room.

But as the blood-red setting and title of Yasmina Reza's new play "God of Carnage" indicate, the veneers of civilization can be all too easily, not to mention uproariously, stripped away.

This play, presented after great success in Paris and London (Christopher Hampton has provided the English translation), is very much in the style of Reza's biggest hit, "Art." Featuring a superlative cast that includes Jeff Daniels, Hope Davis, James Gandolfini and Marcia Gay Harden, it's a raucously funny boulevard comedy that should prove future catnip to performers during its inevitable lengthy run.

The setup of the 90-minute, intermissionless work is wonderfully simple. Two couples meet to discuss a schoolyard altercation between their young sons that resulted in some teeth being knocked out. They are Alan (Daniels), an arrogant corporate lawyer addicted to his cell phone; his wife, Annette (Davis), who describes herself as being in "wealth management"; Michael (Gandolfini), a wholesale supplier of hardware products; and his wife, Veronica (Harden), a writer who specializes in African themes.

What begins as a reasonable discussion quickly breaks down into overt hostility and ultimately chaos. The spouses constantly shift sides, attacking each other as much as the other couple. Annette gets violently ill, and Alan constantly interrupts the proceedings to bark orders into his cell phone about a case involving a shady pharmaceutical company manufacturing a dangerous drug that Michael's mother happens to be taking. By the time all is said and done, everyone involved, not to mention the high-toned surroundings, is very much the worse for wear.

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.

The setting and characters have been Americanized for the Broadway production, with broader and less successful results. (It's funnier when repressed Brits resort to scandalously vulgar behavior.) But this cast goes through its paces brilliantly, with Gandolfini — revealing not a trace of his Tony Soprano — a particular revelation with his slow-burn comic turn.

In a heavyweight Broadway season stuffed with productions of Chekhov, Ibsen, O'Neill, Ionesco, August Wilson and the like, this sophisticated satire should prove a welcome diversion for audiences looking for comic relief. (partialdiff)