PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: God of Carnage — The Children's Hour-and-a-Half

News   PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: God of Carnage — The Children's Hour-and-a-Half
Who's afraid of Yasmina Reza? Evidently, not the players that director Matthew Warchus recruited stateside for her four-star, 90-minute donnybrook, God of Carnage, which came out swingin' and slingin' March 22 at the Jacobs Theatre.
God of Carnage stars Jeff Daniels, Hope Davis, Marcia Gay Harden and James Gandolfini; guests Edie Falco, Hugh Jackman and Maggie Grace
God of Carnage stars Jeff Daniels, Hope Davis, Marcia Gay Harden and James Gandolfini; guests Edie Falco, Hugh Jackman and Maggie Grace Photo by Aubrey Reuben

Not since George and Martha invited the new faculty couple over for some late-night "fun and games" has Broadway seen a more quarrelsome quartet of intellectuals rapidly running amok. They start slow, on a lofty, civilized plane — two sets of parents poring over a legal statement that will head off any future court action prompted by an altercation between their respective 11-year-old sons.

It seems that the son of The Home Team (housewares wholesaler James Gandolfini and Marcia Gay Harden, a bleeding-heart-liberal writer specializing in art and African injustices) has been struck by a stick and had two teeth knocked out by the son of The Visitors (Jeff Daniels, a corporate lawyer chronically attached to his cell phone, and Hope Davis, in "wealth management"). All have the appearance of adulthood, changing words here and there, refining the document, but the bitterness of the incident that has brought them together begins to boil and bubble troublesomely until it finally spills into chaos and spirals downward to hell in a hand-basket.

Daniels' character, who clearly doesn't want to be there (and, really, isn't), speeds things along by periodically answering his phone and doing damage control for a possibly faulty prescription pill. Harden keeps wheedling and needling her guests for some kind of apology or acknowledgement of wrong-doing. Gandolfini's tendency to accommodate all parties runs dry. The mounting tension proves too much for Davis' nervous tummy, and she upchucks a geyser all over stacks of priceless coffee-table books. Like a shot, Harden is down on her hands and knees, in rubber gloves, scrubbing and cursing.

Reza is clearly on a collision course here, and the mayhem slips into overdrive. Battle-lines separating couples and genders rise and fall on a dime. Two marriages come crashing down in heaps. Casualties include a drowned cell phone and two florid displays of tulips hysterically distributed all over the living room.

This was a real night in the theatre, and an extremely starry turn-out laughed it up accordingly as Reza applied pressure to the pedal and a sterling ensemble drove it home. Spirits were buoyant, if not bouncing off the walls, at the after-party held about as far west as you can go on 42nd Street, at the swanky new Espace. "It's an absolute Rolls-Royce cast — couldn't be better," lauded Christopher Hampton, who translated Reza from French into English and then into "American" for Broadway. This is his fourth time around that Broadway block, having translated her Life (x) 3, the Tony-winning Art and The Unexpected Man. "Yes, I love her plays," he said. "As a matter of fact, I read her first play when she was in her 20s and really liked it. It was called Conversations After a Burial, and I tried to get people to do it in England and I couldn't, so when Art came along I was already well-placed to pounce.

"It is quite a difficult business translating Yasmina's plays because, although you want them to be very colloquial, they're also slightly stylized so they have a slightly heightened language. Also, she's very good — in this play, particularly — in escalating the stakes and the language from this most calm start to this volcanic ending."

Himself a two-time Tony-winning playwright, Hampton is this season's Mighty Tailor with three works on Broadway (his translation of The Seagull came at the end of last year, and Roundabout will be reviving his Tony-nominated opus, The Philanthropist, opening at its American Airlines Theatre April 26 with Matthew Broderick).

"I've had a very busy couple of weeks," he happily admitted. "I have been going to The Philanthropist during the day and previews of God of Carnage in the evening."

All that, and "I'm working on a screenplay for Universal, based on 'East of Eden,' based on the entire book. Elia Kazan brilliantly did the last hundred pages, but he left out the rest of the book, and it's jolly interesting. We're doing it as a feature.

"And I have a new play that's opening in Vienna, in German, in December. It's called Youth Without God. Set in prewar Nazi Germany, it's about a schoolteacher who gets into trouble because he complains when one of his pupils says all black people should be exterminated. It's a novel that was written in the '30s which, more than any other novel that I know, explained what daily life was like in Nazi Germany."

Conspicuously missing in action all evening was Reza herself, off in Paris making her movie-directing debut with a script she has written. "She kinda offered me a role — a very, very small role — in it, but I said I had to work," confessed Hampton. "I don't think she has decided yet what the name will be. It's based loosely on a [Reza] play which I didn't translate called The Spanish Play." David Ives did that particular translation.

This is the third time Warchus has directed God of Carnage. He also directed a U.K. tour as well as the London production. "It's a play that you have to learn in a very rigorous way," he said. "It's quite strictly directed, which is not always my style. The pitch, the physical movements of the play and the musical phrasing — by that, I mean there are sections that go very fast and, to a certain extent, the silences of the play. They're all quite rigorously imposed by me for focus. With four leading actors, the audience would happily look at anybody. It's not clear where they're supposed to look. I must make sure they look and listen to the right person at the right time."

These four were not as hard to cast as you might think, he said. "It's such a good play. The script is appealing to actors. Part of the casting is to find the people that contrast each other. It's almost like assembling a musical ensemble, in a way."

Gandolfini got a jump on the casting by catching the play in London, while filmmaking, and pursuing the Broadway transfer that was already in the works.

"James asked me if he could do it, and I said, 'Well, all right, then,'" Warchus remarked lightly. "He twisted my arm. Seriously, we spent two meetings, talking it through because I needed to know that he would be all right getting back to the stage after a long time of playing a major role [namely, Tony Soprano of "The Sopranos"].

"In a way, they've got such different backgrounds of experience, although they're very good at what they're known for, but bringing them together as a team — I had to know I could do that when I cast them, and I knew, bit by bit, that they were going to be able to work together."

[flipbook] Warchus has melded, with great subtlety, his impeccable cast into a whole. "It's all subtext directing, all of it. Very little time is spent on the text. It's all about filling in the subtext. What are they thinking? What are they feeling? What happened the day before? What's their marriage been like? It's what I call tip-of-the-iceberg directing. It's all about filling in what's underneath. Therefore, the productions end up on the surface quite similar each time I do it. The difference comes with the audience.

"New York audiences are so different from French and British audiences. They make so much more noise. With a play like this, it's a complete delight. In London we might get laughter and a gasp, but in America you get huge waves of laughs and maybe a cheer and then a whoooooaaaa sound, like a sporting event. I think a play like this really benefits from that kind of thing because it's involvement in the play."

On his way over to the party site, Warchus admitted he was filled with dread that he would be quizzed about the astonishingly convincing throw-up scene — a classic moment of theatre if ever there was one! — and, of course, he was asked, repeatedly, but, like Harry Houdini guarding his magic, he held on to his secret. "I can't say how, but I'm proud of it. I wanted to make sure all liquids came out of her mouth. She couldn't possibly have been holding it. All I can say is: it has something to do with the couch."

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The lady who executes this trick likewise maintained the zipped-lip front. "I can't answer that question," said Davis. "It's very complicated, I'll say that. The main point with Yasmina is that she wanted the vomit to look very, very real. She didn't want someone just spitting something out of their mouth. She wanted a real projectile vomit so Matthew Warchus and his team of technicians figured out how to make that happen. During rehearsals, I did so much heaving that I couldn't eat my lunch anymore. I just learned to deal with it. I've kinda built up some heaving muscles." Motherhood kept Davis off the stage for a stretch — she has a four-year-old and a two-year-old — while she devoted herself to short-range film projects. Now, she's back and in some pretty classy company. "At different times, we all got nervous. It's much trickier being on stage than on film, really. None of us had been up there in a long time, except for Jeff, so we all had to calm each other down as a group."

Davis counted herself quite lucky to have come back in such an interesting role. "I think she's hilarious," she said of her buttoned-down part. "I like how nervous she is, how she wants to try to do the right thing and she ends up just blowing her stack."

Harden is pleased with her pickings, too — and unravels like a house afire. "I love that's she's fierce, that she means well, that she's a disaster through the process."

The Oscar winner (for "Pollock") has never found much marital bliss on the New York stage. She was Tony-nominated as the wife of bisexual David Marshall Grant in Tony Kushner's Tony-winning two-parter, Angels in America, and she played Laura Bush in another Kushner piece. In between, she did Sam Shepard's 1993 Simpatico at The Public, opposite Ed Harris, who got her to play Jackson Pollock's wife.

"I don't know why it is I have bad marriages on stage," she admitted, "but in real life I married super-well." His name is Thaddaeus Scheel, and he came to her already well marked: Both Harden's father and her brother are named Thaddaeus. Daniels, who began his Broadway career as Christopher Reeve's almost saintly partner-caretaker in Lanford Wilson's 1980 Fifth of July, swings to the other side of the pendulum here as the nasty, narcissistic lawyer on the attack. "You can be absolutely shameless in your arrogance and your ego and your smartest-one-in-the-room-till-someone-proves-otherwise-which-they-won't," he beamed with relish. He even allows his character to smile watching the other marriage come apart at the seams.

"Oh, my guy loves that kind of thing," Daniels delighted in saying. "'Oh, this is interesting. Maybe they'll come to blows. Let me get a seat so I can see it better.'"

The Marshall Brickman-Rick Elice musical he tried out last year, Turn of the Century, is still in the active file, but "they have to raise more money, and I think we have to go out of town one more time. We still have work to do on it, but it was great fun doing it."

Tommy Tune and Rachel York, the director and co-star of Turn of the Century, came out to support Daniels on his opening night, and at his table was Debra Monk, who won her Tony co-starring with him in another Lanford Wilson play, Redwood Curtain. "I'm getting ready to shoot a pilot up in Rhode Island — going up this week — called 'House Rules,'" said Monk. She had hoped to be back on the boards here in a one-woman show about a face in the crowd of early-day television, Mrs. Miller Does Her Thing, written and directed by James Lapine, but it was canceled.

Other friends at court: Jonathan Cake (who's busily growing a beard for Hampton's The Philanthropist), the recent Desdemona at The Duke, Juliet Rylance (whose dad, Mark, was just directed to a Tony for Boeing-Boeing by Warchus) and two actresses from The Spanish Play by Reza — Zoe Caldwell and Linda Emond — were in attendance, as was Mrs. Tony Soprano, Edie Falco, who was proud of her boy.

The notoriously press-shy Gandolfini skipped the interview hoopla altogether and held private court at his table, greeting pals who came over to congratulate him.

Among the first-nighters were Alan Alda, Walter Bobbie, Bobby Cannavale, Fran Drescher, America Ferrara, Jane Fonda, Maggie Grace, Colin Hanks, David Hyde-Pierce, Jeremy Irons, Hugh Jackman, David Lindsay-Abaire, Lucy Liu, Phyllida Lloyd, Eric Mabius, Jena Malone, Kathleen Marshall, Samantha Mathis, Janet McTeer, Christopher Meloni, Joey Pantoliano, Sarah Paulson, Geoffrey Rush, John Patrick Shanley, Martha Stewart, Amber Tamblyn, Harriet Walter and Barbara Walters.

The centerpiece of every table was a vaise of tulips just begging to be strewn about the premises.

The cast of <I>God of Carnage</I> take their opening night curtain call.
The cast of God of Carnage take their opening night curtain call.
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