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'God of Carnage's' original cast is ready to fight again

Jeff Daniels, Hope Davis, James Gandolfini and Marcia Gay Harden earned acclaim on Broadway. After much effort, they are all returning for a run at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles.

March 06, 2011|David Ng, Los Angeles Times
  • James Gandolfini, left, Hope Davis, Marcia Gay Harden and Jeff Daniels in the 2009 production of "God of Carnage" at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre in New York.
James Gandolfini, left, Hope Davis, Marcia Gay Harden and Jeff Daniels… (Joan Marcus )

When "God of Carnage," Yasmina Reza's Tony-winning comedy of bad bourgeois behavior, opens at the Ahmanson Theatre on April 13, it will feature the same cast that won near universal acclaim when the play debuted on Broadway in 2009 — Jeff Daniels, Hope Davis, James Gandolfini and Marcia Gay Harden — a rare instance in which an entire Broadway ensemble reprises their roles in Los Angeles.

For the producers, getting the stars — literally and figuratively — to align for a second time was no simple task given four respected actors' professional and personal lives. In fact, the idea of reassembling the cast intact at times looked impossible.

"We were all on tenterhooks," said Stuart Thompson, one of the play's Broadway producers who is also producing the play at the Ahmanson. "It was a matter of putting all of the jigsaw pieces together. It finally came together at the eleventh hour."

"Carnage," translated from the French by Christopher Hampton, tells the story of two pairs of well-to-do Brooklyn parents — Daniels and Davis vs. Gandolfini and Harden — whose sons are involved in a playground fight. Over the course of 90 intermission-less minutes, the parents' outward sense of decorum devolves into a frenzy of shouting, hitting and other forms of childish behavior.

Daniels, who plays the role of Alan, a lawyer who cannot put down his cellphone, said that bringing everyone back was "like herding cats." But the limited engagement of about six weeks made it easier for the actors to commit, as opposed to the longer run in New York.

"I have a feeling it will be like picking up where we left off, except that now we've rested," said Daniels. "I remember thinking 10 days before we closed our cast [on Broadway] — I felt like that we were hanging on, trying to get to the finish line."

Harden — who won the Tony for her performance as Veronica, a writer and art-history buff with a short temper —- said that returning to the play was "a hard decision initially, more for what the play examines than anything else. The exploration of anger — you ask yourself, how can I explore this further and in a deeper way?" But, she added, "You can't say no out of fear."

Michael Ritchie, the artistic director of Center Theatre Group, said that getting an original Broadway cast "is fairly unusual" for L.A. "We've tried before, but two years later, most people have moved on — not just actors, but also the director and crew," he said. "I think the reason 'God of Carnage' is happening is because the cast loved working on the play and working together."

There is also the added appeal of performing a high-profile play in an industry town, with all of the Hollywood exposure that that entails. "L.A. is a very attractive city for actors to be in a play. It's a city where a lot of actors have friends," said Robert Fox, a producer of "Carnage."

The idea to bring "Carnage" to L.A. arose early in the Broadway run. Ritchie saw the show in New York and "in the back of my mind, I said I would like to do this play [at the Ahmanson]." But he said it was too early at that point to make any concrete plans.

After the play's success at the 2009 Tonys — where it won three awards, including best play — producers pursued a national tour. Organizers got as far as booking a few cities. including L.A. and Chicago, but pulled the plug after they failed to secure enough venues to make the tour financially feasible.

Producers said they would have needed to book 34 to 35 weeks on the road and that regional companies wanted casting information before it was available. "It's difficult to tour a straight play these days, which is very sad," said Thompson.

On Broadway, "Carnage" continued to do robust business. The original ensemble left the show in November 2009, followed by two replacement casts. The final Broadway cast, which started in March 2010, featured the return of Daniels, who took on the role originated by Gandolfini — Michael, a household-goods salesman.

It was during Daniels' return to the Broadway production that the idea to bring the original "Carnage" cast to L.A. was revived. Gandolfini visited Daniels backstage at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre after seeing the play, and they chatted informally about doing the play on the West Coast, after which one of the actors' managers called the producers about what the actors had discussed. Shortly thereafter, the producers contacted the managers for Davis and Harden, asking if the idea would interest them.

The prevailing sentiment among the cast was that it would have to be an all of them or no deal. Around the same time, CTG announced that "Carnage" would be part of the Ahmanson's 2010-11 season, though the company was still unsure about who would be in the cast.

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