God of Carnage

Time Out Ratings :

<strong>Rating: </strong>4/5
SPOUSE ARREST Harden, left, bawls out Gandolfini.

Photograph: Joan Marcus

If James Gandolfini is trying to shake the long, menacing shadow of Tony Soprano, he's only halfway there as Michael, the deceptively beta family man who forms one side of Yasmina Reza's marvelously nasty parallelogram, God of Carnage. At first, Michael is all deferential smiles as he and his wife (Harden) negotiate an apology with the parents (Daniels, Davis) of a child who bashed theirs in the face with a stick during a schoolyard fight. Michael tries to be polite but eventually the viciousness that broke out between the children replicates in the progenitors. Before long, Gandolfini is swearing, swilling rum and lighting up a stogie. Welcome back, T.

To be sure, the HBO icon holds his own with a first-rate ensemble that breathes life into Reza's arch civility-versus-savagery comedy. God of Carnage is the author's most satisfying work since Art (1998), which also balances her very French tendency to jumble philosophy and farce with a surgical dissection of bourgeois pretension and slippery social identity. Matthew Warchus masterfully stages the work, heeding the playwright's command to eschew strict naturalism and embrace the artificial nature of the action. The characters exist as stock types (Daniels as the callous lawyer and Davis as an icy wealth-management consultant), yet the loopier script convulsions allow for ridiculous (and theatrically bracing) psychological leaps. Framed by Mark Thompson's looming, stylized set (suggesting a modernist-chic abbatoir), this skilled quartet makes wonderful music—part classical harmony, part wilderness howl.—David Cote

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Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre. By Yasmina Reza. Dir. Matthew Warchus. With Jeff Daniels, Hope Davis, James Gandolfini, Marcia Gay Harden. 1hr 30mins. No intermission. Tickets