In Woody Allen’s great film Crimes and Misdemeanors, Alan Alda has a whole bit about the secret of comedy (“It’s…tragedy…plus time”), but does such a rule apply to the theater as well? In the case of Yasmina Reza’s Tony-winning God of Carnage, the playwright would agree that her play is a tragedy (reportedly, she is often puzzled by how American audiences find it so funny). But the third cast to inhabit this play’s ensemble has finally nailed the tricky challenge of playing the drama of the piece which, in effect, unearths Reza’s work as a bit more than a Brooklyn elite gab-a-thon. I’ll freely admit: I wasn’t much of a fan of Carnage at this time last year. Despite the stellar cast and Matthew Warchus’s expert direction, it seemed to me a Möbius strip of a concoction with too much contrivance at its center. (Why do the Raleighs keep heading to the door only to constantly wind up back on the Novacks’ couch?) People laughed their heads off, sometimes at just the right intervals, but I had hoped for a deeper, more resonant experience that sadly never came.
Well, tonight I’m going to dine on some crow, because not only was I one of the people chuckling heartily this time, but Reza’s play had sharper focus than it had ever revealed previously. Sometimes all it takes is just the right cast to modify something into fully operational machinery. And while the play still has those pesky contrivances that gnaw at you, the new quartet (Dylan Baker, Jeff Daniels, Lucy Liu, Janet McTeer) fully realize the power of words, and instead of going straight for the gut laughs, bring a more organic fluidity to the (literal) table. The tone is more contemplative this time, less manic, though startlingly, the play seems to move at an even steadier clip.
The Novacks and the Raleighs, the pair of couples who calmly, then with a frenzied lack of inhibition, discuss and dissect the schoolyard fight their sons engaged in, seem less like “types” this time around. A line that might have glibly hinted at the inner life of these couples now simmers with lived-in adult regret. For example, when Daniels, surprisingly forceful in the male role opposite to the one he played in the original cast, laments that “children consume our lives and then destroy them,” the world weariness that should have always clung to that line is readily apparent.
Liu, in her Broadway debut, is a bit stiff at first as Baker’s (trophy?) wife, but as her character begins to unwind, her performance becomes more focused, and her late-breaking aria about the allure of men not attracted to their gadgets has real backbone. McTeer, with a terrific American accent, reprises the role she originated on the West End with tremendous success. An actress with supreme command of her imposing stature and presence, McTeer creates a stirring slow burn that transforms her character from a nervous fawn to a ferocious, leaping gazelle. Her pivotal final scene, in which she soberly takes a call from her young daughter, is truly powerful in her hands, a tour de force in only a few minutes.
Baker, always a reliable assist in stage and film, does work that is nothing short of transformative. Alan, the smart, close-to-smarmy lawyer who prioritizes his work calls to the discussion at hand, is often seen as the least of the four roles, presumably because he doesn’t have as revealing a journey. Not so this time around, as Baker unveils what a crafty actor can do with a role. Through his perfectly calibrated portrayal, Alan becomes an enticing contradiction: a delightful dickhead, but one who never seems merely dismissive or self-absorbed for the sole purposes of cranking the play’s gear shifts. So good he makes you wish for that long-forgotten, proposed Tony replacement category, Baker is gold with this new cast, and together they take a play that seemed to be in neutral all the way into maximum overdrive.
God of Carnage is now playing at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre (242 West 45th St.) in New York City. Running time: 1 hour and 30 minutes, no intermission. Schedule: Tue at 7pm, Wed-Sat at 8pm, Wed & Sat at 2pm, Sun at 3pm.