Acting Fleshes Out God of Carnage; Even Stars Can’t Animate Impressionism or Exit the King


Strange, the prevailing tastes of a transitional era. Three “straight” plays open on Broadway within a week, similar in the pallidly narrow sense of drama they embody: Only one, in the worst of the three productions, actually contains what you could fairly call dramatic substance. And the secret of how to enliven this anorexic version of playwriting has only been grasped by one production—using, ironically, the most mechanically predictable script of the trio.

That secret, of course, is acting. While all three productions boast actors of some ability, including, in each case, a few with the media power to sell tickets, only in God of Carnage will you see the talent and star power being marshaled usefully. With the plays not deserving much discussion, most of what follows will be about acting, itself also an aspect of theater that, in our time, has acquired strangely diluted, and often distorted, expectations.

God of Carnage is 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. A premise that generalizes about human beings is started, a counter-premise contradicts it, an attempt at synthesis upsets the apple cart, and back and forth the dramatic ping-pong ball goes. Reza is clever—exceptionally clever, this time around—at inventing little distractions to conceal the pattern from those who don’t cotton on quickly, but these sidebars never deepen the basic premise or materially advance the narrative. Human beings are either A or B or an ungainly combination of both, and for her, that’s really all there is to it.

In God of Carnage, the A and B are civility and savagery; of course, the character who speaks up for savagery, using the title phrase, ends by making the most pathetic of the four characters’ many attempts to be civil. The joke’s an ancient one; Molière spent about three pages on it in the quarrel of Monsieur Jourdain’s instructors, in Le bourgeois gentilhomme. God of Carnage is a 63-page script. What makes the other 60 pages bearable?

The answer is acting. It can’t, for the most part, supply the big explanations that Reza’s barrenly mechanistic schema leaves blank: Why, since the two couples’ meeting comes from one couple’s 11-year-old son having injured the other’s in a local park, have neither teachers nor parents noticed any trouble between the kids before, especially since both kids appear to be major problem cases? How has the coarse-grained wholesaler (James Gandolfini) managed to tolerate his preposterously prim and p.c. wife (Marcia Gay Harden) for a dozen years of marriage? And why would even an arrogantly schmucky corporate attorney (Jeff Daniels) proudly call his son “a savage” in front of strangers he’s trying to settle a difference with, not to mention his neurasthenic wife (Hope Davis)?

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. Finding some inner reality, God knows how, in which to ground these stick figures, they offer up what look like spontaneous shadings, shifts of tone, and ebbs and flows of energy or tempo, all of which make the carefully pre-formatted events seem to be blossoming, vividly and surprisingly, as you watch. 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. Some aspect of this uninviting work about unappealing people must have revitalized him.

Maybe it was the simple combination of personalities he cast, since all four are at the top of their form: Daniels has been as good as this before, but rarely better; Davis’s mix of soft and acerbic is more strongly focused than in previous stage performances. Harden, a highly mannered actress, ranges more subtly within the limitations of her manner than previously, and with more secure power. 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?

Michael Jacobs’s Impressionism notoriously went through a troubled preview period, revealing, when it finally opened, the twin sources of the trouble: Jacobs’s script and Jack O’Brien’s production. Based on an untenable metaphor—a gallery owner (Joan Allen) who refuses to sell the paintings she hangs because they’re linked to her most traumatic memories—the script is clumsy and often stilted, supplying only an occasional heart-tug with some well-worn piece of theatrical hokum. The physical production, featuring projections on top of projections, looks cluttered and awkward; Jeremy Irons, playing all the unhelpful men in Allen’s life, conveys even more uncomfortable awkwardness. The couple strikes no sparks; Allen’s inner radiance, still palpable after a 19-year absence from Broadway, has to carry the sludgy evening by itself. A little relief comes from Marsha Mason’s warm sweetness; André de Shields, who can apparently make the tiniest stock role into an epic of enchantment, nearly snitches the show from Allen.

Ionesco’s Exit the King (1962), an existential grandparent to these new plays in which a predictable event slowly takes its course, will outlive them all because it tackles the ultimate event (death), tests it against all possible modes of defiance, and opens it out to reveal all possible ramifications. Thanks to this intellectual sturdiness, the play will even survive the brash, noisy mess that Neil Armfield’s production has made of it, abetted by star and co-translator Geoffrey Rush, who’s way too busy chewing scenery to give the title role any cohesive life. Everyone else merely shouts, except for Susan Sarandon, woefully miscast and worse misdirected, who seems to be looking for an alternative style, or possibly a different play.