Volume 78 - Number 43 / April 01 -07, 2009
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933


Theater

GOD OF CARNAGE
Written by Yasmina Reza
Directed by Matthew Warchus
Open Run
Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, 242 West 45th St.
(212) 239-6200

Photo by Joan Marcus

Jeff Daniels as the wheeling & dealing Alan Raleigh

Jeff Daniels breathes likability into unsympathetic characters

Actor returns to Broadway & Chelsea venues

By Jerry Tallmer

In Cobble Hill Park, Brooklyn, an 11-year-old boy named Benjamin Raleigh hit a classmate named Henry Vallon in the face, with a stick (breaking one or maybe two of Henry’s teeth) for calling him a snitch.

Now Benjamin’s parents, Alan and Annette, have come on an invitation visit to Henry’s parents, Michael and Veronica — to talk over the little brouhaha and what to do about it like sensible people; good, liberal, well-intended grownups.

What happens from there on out you may perhaps guess from the title of the play, “God of Carnage.”

Written by Yasmina Reza, the Hungarian-Iranian Frenchwoman who 10 years ago sent us “Art” — a highbrow comedy about highbrow phoniness — “Carnage” was a big recent hit in Paris, then in London. Translated into English (like “Art”) by Christopher Hampton and into American by parties unnamed, it is now at the Jacobs Theater on Broadway, where the audiences can scarcely stop howling with laughter.

I hated that audience for one such huge roar at the sight of a woman (seeming to) vomit on stage, but when she did it a second time a few minutes later, I have to admit that I — hating myself — laughed too.

Indeed, having read the play before seeing it, I did not anticipate what would happen to it when turned into a flesh-and-blood farce by four gifted actors.

“I didn’t either,” said one of those actors, Jeff Daniels, as we chatted after a show some few days ago. “When they sent it to me and I read it, I didn’t have a clue how to do it,” Daniels said, “I had no idea how funny it could be.”

He gives credit for this to his three fellow performers as well as director Matthew Warchus. “Sometimes it’s good to be on a project where you don’t have to worry about anybody,” Daniels said.

Those fellow performers are Hope Davis as Annette, the unfortunate vomiter (mother of the Benjamin who clobbered poor Henry); Marcia Gay Harden as Veronica, Henry’s mom, volcanic in other ways; and James Gandolfini, the late Tony Soprano of “The Sopranos,” now as Michael Vallon, poor Henry’s pop. He’s a do-gooding schmuck in hardware wholesale who — terrified of rodents — has deposited his kids’ hamster out in the street (more exactly, the gutter) to shift for itself.

And then there is Jeff Daniels as wheeling and dealing Alan Raleigh, Benjamin’s progenitor, the hotshot lawyer for a crooked giant pharmaceutical firm that’s in hot water with the FDA. Alan is umbilically tied to a cell phone that rings intermittently throughout the play with bulletins and tactical requests regarding the pharmaceutical case. Finally, Alan’s wife, the vomiter, snatches the damned thing from her husband and — well, I won’t tell you.

“Actors can really screw this up,” said Daniels. “What Matthew [director Warchus] told us was: ‘Play it straight. Don’t start going for jokes. If you go for jokes, they evaporate.’ ”

Actor Daniels is particularly high in praise of fellow actor Gandolfini, whose stage experience has been somewhat less extensive than his much-admired work on small and lage screens.

“I loved what Jim did on ‘The Sopranos,’ ” Daniels said. “He was absolutely fearless. He broke so many rules.

Does everything actors are afraid to do, hesitate to do. Jim does it A to Z.”

Fearless interviewer asked fearful question: How fearless are you?

Daniels gave me a long look. “Well,” he said, “in ‘Dumb and Dummer’ I sat on a toilet while playing opposite Jim Carey. That takes a certain kind of fearlessness. Toward the end of shooting a film, an actor will go to the director and say: ‘Do you have a speech for me where I can come away with a kind of better image?’

“That’s what you learn in star school,” this veteran of more than 50 movies and God knows how many plays, in and out of New York City, said with uninflected irony. “It’s called ‘likeability.’ ”

He did not have to say: “I do not do that,” but in two of those movies that this viewer most vividly remember, “Terms of Endearment” and “The Squid and the Whale,” warm-blooded Jeff Daniels is brilliant all the way through to the end as a coldly unsympathetic character.

Whether that will obtain in his next movie to be released, “Paper Man,” an independent film shot in these parts, I do not know. Daniels plays a failed writer who, in retreat at Montauk Point, in a house provided by his wife in New York, gets new inspiration from a 16-year-old local girl played by Emma Stone.

The real Jeff Daniels has long been married to the real Kathleen Treado, his Chelsea, Michigan, high-school sweetheart. Their three children are now safely in or beyond college, enabling their father to do what he chose not to do so he could be there while they were growing up: hit the New York stage, as in his youth.

Daniels remains closely attached to this day with the Purple Rose Theatre Company he founded in 1991, up there in Chelsea. The name is taken from Woody Allen’s wonderful 1985 film, “The Purple Rose of Cairo,” in which Daniels plays a Hollywood box-office idol who steps down off the screen and into Mia Farrow’s lonely life.

Having trained his successors in the training he himself received some 30 years ago at Marshall Mason and Lanford Wilson’s Circle Repertory here in New York, Daniels nowadays pretty much keeps hands off. “If necessary, I’ll step in.”

The company does four or five new plays a season, and one American classic. This year’s classic: “A Streetcar Named Desire.”

It is the Purple Rose presence, Daniels says, that brought Chelsea’s business district back to life, even now, in the midst of national economic collapse.

“Audiences are more selective now about what to go to and how much to pay. Though Purple Rose attendance is down, it’s still at 75 to 80 percent.”

Then, deadpan, with just a touch of smart-ass lawyer Alan Raleigh: “This is the Circle Rep of the Middle West.” And yes, Jeff Daniels — the real Jeff Daniels — carries not just a cell phone, but an iPod. He turns it off during performances, however.

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