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This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theatre for KCRW.

God of Carnage is the story of two couples who come together after their children have gotten into a little playground rumpus. One eleven year old smacked another with a stick and broke two teeth. So the parents create a sort of "truth and reconciliation" committee to try and patch things up. Predictably... things do not go according to plan.

The script by French playwright Yasmina Reza, who wrote the Broadway hit Art, is sort of a modern abbreviated Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf with more evenly matched couples, no Latin, and a lot less pathos. In God of Carnage, Reza suggests that if you scratch the surface, or in this case drink a bottle of nice rum, the most composed among us are really just as barbaric as 11-year olds scrapping on the playground.

The play is like a drunken dinner party where couples that seemed so placid and in control on the outside suddenly unravel with a few too many drinks. Like rubber-neckers on the freeway, we can't help but stop and watch.

But the reason to race to the Ahmanson to see this play is the stellar acting. LA is blessed to have the original Broadway cast return for the current run of God of Carnage. There's James Gandolfini and Marcia Gay Harden in one corner and Hope Davis and Jeff Daniels in the other. And that's what it feels like: a brilliantly matched tag team cage match in, to be honest, a beautiful cage.

Now as a general rule, I'm not a big fan of star casting. Not because I have anything against stars but because theater is, by nature, a team sport. This is the glorious exception that proves the rule.

Not only are these folks "stars" they are also remarkably generous actors with some serious theater chops. The joy of the production is watching four actors play off one another brilliantly. Stylistically, the play is a hysterical descent from liberal gentility to a raw, drunken brutality and what's remarkable is they pull it off. It's a lesson in technique, stage craft, and audacity all rolled into these gorgeous performances.

The script has been criticized for being a predictable "one trick pony," which, on the one hand it is. There are no startling new epiphanies on the human condition. On the other hand, its simplicity is part of the joy for me. It's as if the playwright has written an obstacle course - or a test - for his actors. The playwright all but says as much in her opening stage direction: "A living room... No Realism... Nothing superfluous." The comedy comes not so much from the "what" as the "how." We know what's going to happen, we can't believe they're going to go there, and then, my god, they do. There is a joy and a satisfaction to the inevitable when the journey there is virtuosic. And in the hands of these actors the ride truly is a joy.

Don't miss the God of Carnage playing until May 29 at the Ahmanson Theatre in downtown LA.

For info on the show text the word "curtain" to 69866 and join the conversation at KCRW.com/theatre.

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theatre for KCRW.


(L to R) James Gandolfini, Hope Davis, Marcia Gay Harden and Jeff Daniels reprise their Broadway roles in God of Carnage at the Ahmanson Theatre. Photo: Joan Marcus

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