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Actors talk about rhythm of 'God of Carnage'

Jeff Daniels, Hope Davis, James Gandolfini and Marcia Gay Harden reunite at the Ahmanson.

April 10, 2011|By Barbara Isenberg, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Jeff Daniels, left, Hope Davis, Marcia Gay Harden and James Gandolfini, the original Tony Award-nominated Broadway cast of "God of Carnage."
Jeff Daniels, left, Hope Davis, Marcia Gay Harden and James Gandolfini,… (Kirk McKoy / Los Amgeles…)

Reporting from New York —

It's almost evening when the much-honored Broadway cast of Yasmina Reza's "God of Carnage" finishes rehearsal in a 42nd Street studio and moves across the room to talk about its forthcoming reunion at Los Angeles' Ahmanson Theatre.

Jeff Daniels, Hope Davis, James Gandolfini and Marcia Gay Harden are back in the roles for which each was nominated for a 2009 Tony award. The play, translated from the French by Christopher Hampton, took home Tonys for best play, actress Harden and director Matthew Warchus. "God of Carnage" opens Wednesday at the Ahmanson and has already announced an extension to May 29.

In an upscale Brooklyn neighborhood park, 11-year old Benjamin hits playmate Henry in the face with a stick, breaking two teeth. The victim's parents, played by Gandolfini and Harden, invite the perp's parents, played by Davis and Daniels, to their home to discuss the altercation. As civility gives way to chaos, Daniels, as an unprincipled, cellphone-dependent lawyer, is but the most blatant boor in Reza's comedy of very bad manners. The only thing left standing at the play's conclusion is the set, and it's been through plenty as well.

Different casts populate productions of "God of Carnage" around the world, and Roman Polanski is filming his version, also with a different cast. (Beyond a perfunctory "I wish them luck" from Gandolfini, these players have no comment on the film.)

All of "Carnage's" high-profile cast members are parents, with a total of nine children among them. In many ways, they perform like a family as they talk with The Times.

What is it like to be back in 'God of Carnage' again?

Harden: It feels like yesterday. There's no catching up to do.

Davis: Rehearsing the play again, I'm hearing new things and seeing relationships in a different way than I did before. I don't know whether it's my own experience in the meantime, but the play is just kind of endlessly revealing itself to us.

Daniels: Why wouldn't we want to do it again? We've all been around long enough to know it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. For a straight play, a non-musical, to sell out for 256 straight shows and get the recognition it did and the audiences and the awards and all the attention — it was a great gig.

Let's go back to how that gig came about in the first place.

Gandolfini: I was doing a movie in London, and I went with friends to see the play there. I didn't know anything about it. Nothing. But we went and we laughed. When we came out of the theater after an hour and a half — which was a big selling point — all of us had grins on our faces, and the energy of the audience was good. I had wanted to try some theater, and this guy wasn't the king of England or anything so I figured I could play it. I found out they were going to move it to New York, and then we got lucky and got these three.

The last time you were in a show was in Los Angeles, wasn't it?

Gandolfini: Yes, it was a play called "Remembrance" [produced by Sean Penn and the Helicon Theatre Company] at a small theater. That was in 1997, so you can see why I was a nervous wreck in the beginning.

Daniels: You don't know anything in the beginning. We didn't even know if it was funny. When Jim said the audience laughed, we said, "Oh, really. A laugh riot? Really?"

Gandolfini: The first 10 minutes watching it in London, I thought, "Oh, my God. They're going to be doing this little drawing room discussion for the whole time. I'm going to kill myself.'"

Harden: Everybody who comes and sees it starts out thinking, what is this? It's so conversational and boring. Then, all of a sudden, something clicks in. You don't even know when, but the plane takes off and you're flying.

Did you have fun rehearsing it?

Davis: There's quite a bit of pressure rehearsing a Broadway show. You don't know if the show works or if it will work for an American audience or if we're going to be able to remember our lines. We were very, very nervous. But we laughed until we were sweating bullets. Rehearsing it now, it's still funny.

Gandolfini: There is one spot when Marcia does something, I can't look at her, it's so funny. I won't tell you what it is.

And yet the play is also very serious.

Daniels: I think others can speak more intelligently about this, but the idea is that underneath all the civility, there's this primal beast within all of us. Might is right, and we're all capable of violence at any moment. We can deny it. We can say it doesn't exist, but it does. It's all pretty bleak. That's one thing Matthew [Warchus, the director] said to us. We asked Matthew, "Is there any hope?" And he said, "No. No. No."

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