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The Masks of Civility Come Off In 'God of Carnage'

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Hope Davis, Marcia Gay Harden, Jeff Daniels and James Gandolfini in "God of Carnage." Photo - Craig Schwartz
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After taking a breather upon winning the Tony award for best play in 2009, Yasmina Reza's God of Carnage is back in the spotlight. Its high-profile movie version, starring Kate Winslet and Jodie Foster, directed by Roman Polanski, is filming now. More importantly, the original Broadway production, cast and director intact, has been brought to the Ahmanson Theatre. If this well-written and very funny play ultimately falls a bit below expectations, the production doesn't--the actors are terrific, and all in all it's a tremendously entertaining show.

Michael (James Gandolfini) and Veronica (Marcia Gay Harden) have invited Alan (Jeff Daniels) and Annette (Hope Davis) into their home to try to resolve a problem. Alan & Annette's son knocked out two of Michael & Veronica's son's teeth with a stick, and the two couples are meeting to try and discuss the situation peaceably. Veronica, who's written a book about Darfur, believes in the power of being civil to fix conflicts. Michael, a home goods wholesaler, isn't so sure about that worldview, but he's trying to be nice. Alan, a lawyer who openly professes to having no manners, is trying to put out a client's PR fire before it becomes a conflagration, while Annette, a "wealth manager," is feeling increasingly defensive about her son. When something unexpected happens, the veneer of civility cracks, then shatters completely.

Gandolfini is superb as Michael, initially attempting a show of gentility but finally giving up the act with a combination of bitterness and bemusement at everyone else’s motives. Harden impresses as Veronica, her initial tolerance quickly devolving into torrents of frustrated anger at Michael and increasingly shrill demands of an apology for her injured son. Daniels is hilarious as the self-absorbed Alan, a man who enjoys nothing more than verbal conflict, a guy more connected to his cell phone than his family. Davis is thoroughly convincing as polite Annette, who is considerate until her claws come out, at which point it’s war.

Director Matthew Warchus stages the show simply, focusing on the depth and detail of the performances, and with a cast of this caliber, the result is dazzling. Reza’s play is witty and compelling, but the excellence and precision of the first two-thirds isn’t sustained at the conclusion. Also, finally, Carnage isn’t really about anything other than that people can be selfish jerks, and that’s not exactly news. Mark Thompson’s pleasant living room set, dwarfed by a blood-red backdrop, creates an appropriately ominous mood for the melee to come.

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God of Carnage runs through May 29 at the Ahmanson Theatre
Tickets $20-120 via (213) 972-4400 or www.CenterTheatreGroup.org