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New York Times raves about God of Carnage & The 39 Steps

New York Times

April 17, 2010

Revisiting ‘Carnage’ and ‘39 Steps’ in New Incarnations

By Ben Brantley

As that great cultural arbiter “American Idol” likes to remind us, there’s more than one way to sing a song. Two charming new quartets of performers have joined shows that might be regarded as Broadway equivalents of pop-chart toppers: “God of Carnage” and “Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps,” accessible comedies with nigh-irresistible hooks. And with these latest casts, interpretations that might have been merely dutiful or imitative have instead a sprightly freshness that makes you smile both at what’s familiar and what’s new.


Both plays, it should be said, are remarkably efficient pieces of comic machinery, not only as written but also as directed. And their latest incarnations don’t tinker with the original formulas that made them fly.



So as it did when it opened more than a year ago at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theater, Yasmina Reza’s “God of Carnage,” which took the 2009 Tony for Best Play, continues to invoke the slightly sadistic pleasure of watching two bourgeois couples (now embodied by Jeff Daniels and Janet McTeer, and Dylan Baker and Lucy Liu) lose their footing on the slippery slope that separates civility from hostility.

“Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘The 39 Steps,’” which has reopened Off Broadway at New World Stages after a Broadway run of more than two years, belongs to an airier breed of comedy. Adapted by Patrick Barlow from Hitchcock’s 1936 espionage film, this highly disciplined, highly silly show uses a mere four actors (John Behlmann, Cameron Folmar, Jamie Jackson and Kate MacCluggage), a minimalist set and rudimentary props to reconstruct, deconstruct and pretty much explode a classic movie, scene by scene.

Both productions are equally aware, though, that comedies deflate if they ain’t got rhythm. The most recent versions follow, more or less beat by beat, the timing of the originals. Seeing these shows again brought home for me how impeccably cadenced and staged they have been by their directors, Matthew Warchus (“Carnage”) and Maria Aitken (“The 39 Steps”). But within that framework, there’s room for jazzlike riffing, the sort of variation that gives forever-surprising joy to the theater critic’s task of returning to the same old shows.

Let’s start with “Carnage,” since its cast (in the third wholesale change since it opened) has some tall shadows to wrestle with. When the play (which, like “The 39 Steps,” was previously presented in London) opened on Broadway, Ms. Reza’s living room farce boasted a near-perfect ensemble of stars, who stepped into their roles as if they were favorite bedroom slippers: Mr. Daniels, Hope Davis, James Gandolfini and Marcia Gay Harden. They were all nominated for Tonys, and any one of them could justifiably have won, though only Ms. Harden did.

Mr. Daniels has returned to the play, but in the part of Michael, which was originated on Broadway by Mr. Gandolfini. Alan, the work-obsessed corporate lawyer now played by Mr. Baker, is a more natural fit for the clean-cut Mr. Daniels, who has portrayed similar, if milder-mannered characters in films like “Something Wild.” Come to think of it, you could say that all of the performers here are, on the surface, slightly miscast.

Yet that’s precisely what makes this latest “God of Carnage” funny in unexpected ways. The play — which follows an initially friendly discussion between two sets of parents (in a gentrified Brooklyn neighborhood) about a fight between their sons — is a study of people who, in different ways, are uncomfortable in their skins, or at least in the social roles imposed on them. Any sense of how our images of the four new stars of “Carnage” might chafe against their characters is used to feed and nourish the tensions that propel the play.

Take Ms. McTeer as Veronica, Michael’s wife, a writer of lofty principle and culture, as she likes to remind everyone. Ms. McTeer, who created the part in London, was last seen on Broadway as the title character of Schiller’s “Mary Stuart.” She is indeed an effortlessly regal presence, large of gesture and resonant of voice. Here she uses that presence to conjure a big (or aspiringly big) spirit trapped in a confining domestic role, rather as she did in her Tony-winning turn in “A Doll’s House” in 1997.

Veronica’s pretensions loom larger than when Ms. Harden played her, and she’s more obviously domineering. What makes Ms. McTeer’s version of her so funny is how hard she tries to keep those traits in check, at least with company in the house, and how abysmally she fails. Ms. Liu, best known as a vulpine sexpot in action movies (“Kill Bill,” “Charlie’s Angels”) and on the television series “Ally McBeal,” generates a similar internal friction as the ostensibly meek Annette, a money manager who is married to Alan. When Annette and Veronica each experience a sort of internal combustion, it seems absolutely inevitable.

Ditto for Mr. Baker, a specialist in self-torturing neurotics (remember his devastatingly on-target pedophile in Todd Solondz’s film “Happiness”?), who here transforms the alpha-male Alan into a nervous breakdown waiting to happen (though you don’t realize how predestined it was until it does). And Mr. Daniels embraces his inner bearishness with a piquant combination of the submissively gentle and the dangerously feral.

I suppose you could say that this “Carnage” is more exaggeratedly theatrical than the first Broadway version, and that the artificiality of the play’s construction is slightly more evident. But I’ve never taken claims for Ms. Reza’s profundity as a writer very seriously. And in some ways, precisely because it’s so overtly farcical, the play is even funnier now, even if it doesn’t sound its more somber notes as fully.

“The 39 Steps” also feels a degree or two broader than when I saw it on Broadway. That may be partly because its theater at New World Stages (where it joins another Broadway transplant, “Avenue Q”) is smaller than the American Airlines Theater, where it opened in 2008. But starting with the show’s hero — Mr. Behlmann as a dashing, London-based man of leisure who finds himself caught up in an international spy scheme — everyone seems to be acting in boldface italics.

At first, I thought it might all be a bit much. But this exaggeration of style turns out to be matched by an enhanced feeling of the pure joy of performing, of using the most basic tools of theater to create a complete and intricate universe. That the audience is now closer to the actors — and even more aware of the hoary old tricks used to simulate cinematic scenes of moving trains and cross-country chases — only increases the feeling of complicity in the ridiculous, wondrous act of make-believe that is theater.

The body heat generated by the company warps the air as its members go through physical exertions as demanding, in their way, as those imposed on Twyla Tharp’s dancers. This is particularly true for Mr. Jackson and Mr. Folmar, who happily play too many roles to count, often juggling several of them in a single minute.

As the show’s assorted heroines, Ms. MacCluggage finds the aggression factor in both femme fatality and icy virginity. But I left with a special fondness for Mr. Behlmann, who managed to preserve a classic English sang-froid even when dripping sweat.

I caught both these productions on the same day, in matinee and evening performances, and I highly recommend the double bill. I don’t know about you, but springtime in New York — with its concentrated pollen and zigzag temperatures — makes me giddy, dopey and a little giggly. That’s the perfect state of mind for revisiting “God of Carnage” and “The 39 Steps.”

Click here to read the review online:  <http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/17/theater/17brantley.html?ref=theater> .

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