Theater dines on bad behavior, and in that light, God of Carnage is the ultimate seven-course meal. Yasmina Reza’s acid-tongued comedy, now running through May 29 at L.A.’s Ahmanson Theatre, plays like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? with less civility and more projectile vomiting. It captures the myriad of ways that grown adults (and their children) can beat up one another. And it’s a hoot.
The L.A. production reunites the original 2009 Broadway cast (here’s our review of the original Broadway production), who sprint through the 90-minute show with enviable gusto. These are four actors at the top of their game, cutting loose with a succession of quips that’d feel right at home in an Aaron Sorkin screenplay (incidentally, Sorkin was present for the opening night, along with Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, Will Ferrell, and Eric Stonestreet, to name a few).
This was my first exposure to God of Carnage, but as far as I can tell, everything from the red-stained walls and carpet to the Brooklyn setting has survived the journey from Broadway. The play commences with two sets of parents meeting to discuss a playground brawl between their respective 11-year-old sons. Benjamin, the child of lawyer Alan (Jeff Daniels) and ”wealth manager” Annette (Hope Davis), has whacked Henry, the son of domestic-goods wholesaler Michael (James Gandolfini) and writer Veronica (Tony winner Marcia Gay Harden), with a stick. The damage: two missing teeth, or ”incisors,” as Veronica clarifies.
It’s revealing that the kids in question are never seen, for although the parents’ conversation begins by focusing on the boys, it quickly devolves into a rum-fueled verbal bloodbath centered on parenting skills (or lack thereof), humankind’s adherence to propriety, and marriage as the ”most terrible ordeal God can inflict on you.”
An initial hurdle to savoring God of Carnage is getting past the fact that 99 times out of 100, this battle could have been averted. One must accept that these individuals would choose to expose themselves in such an unflattering manner, and that their altercation could escalate to such a degree of hostility in the span of just 90 minutes. For the most part, the narrative flows convincingly from one incident to the next. But on occasion, the characters engage in actions that feel less like organic behavioral decisions and more like artificial ”moments” created for the audience’s amusement. When Veronica starts catapulting pillows across the living room, it’s slapstick comedy that hasn’t quite been earned.
Nevertheless, as scenery-chewing satire goes, Reza’s play (as translated by Christopher Hampton and directed by Tony winner Matthew Warchus) succeeds in grabbing your full attention and never letting go until its calming denouement. The cast is the most engaging kind of bad company, but Davis may have the most fascinating character arc, as her Annette transforms from mild-mannered arbitrator to alcohol-swiping accuser.
By year’s end, Sony Pictures Classics will release a Roman Polanski-helmed movie adaptation (with the more-to-the-point title Carnage) starring Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz, Jodie Foster, and John C. Reilly. That’s a formidable lineup. But the beast currently on stage still demands your attention. B+
(Tickets: www.CenterTheatreGroup.org / 213-972-4400)