When we first saw God of Carnage last year, we were blown away. Yasmina Reza’s tightly constructed one-act packs a wallop of a theatrical punch into eighty minutes on stage. The brutally funny comedy of (bad) manners stems from a playground altercation between two preteen boys that escalates to full-on war when their parents get involved.
The curtain comes up as Henry and Benjamin’s parents Michael (Jeff Daniels) and Veronica (Janet McTeer)/Alan (Dylan Baker) and Annette (Lucy Liu) respectfully, fine-tune an official statement on the incident over coffee and clafouti (kind of like fruitcake), which gives way in real-time to brandy and cigars. Blame is doled out, and uncomfortable truths are revealed, such as what really happened to a certain pet hamster. Translator Christopher Hampton sets the mayhem in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn for a refreshing New York feel. Director Michael Warchus‘ fast-paced staging teems with physical comedy that’s explosive.
Original New York cast member Jeff Daniels returned this week in a new role, transforming from the fast-talking lawyer to the self-made small business man. We caught up with Daniels and the rest of the new cast (their first performance was Tuesday night) during rehearsal to talk about the challenges of theater, getting to know their dysfunctional characters, and who they identify with the most.
On flipping roles
Jeff Daniels: The producers asked if I’d be interested in flipping roles. It never occurred to me doing it the first time. We were done in November. What a ride. It was great. Walk away. And then they called. As someone who’s been around a long time, you look for those creative challenges, and this is that. I could care less that we’re the third cast. It’s the chance to flip roles and work with Janet, Dylan, and Lucy. They bring new things to it. It’s alive in a different way, and if we can get to the vitriol and chow downs that we did a year ago, it will be enjoyable.
On the challenges of theater
Lucy Liu: When I first started acting I spent a lot of time on the stage, so it’s nice to come back and relive that. There’s nothing like it. There’s an anxiety, an excitement. There’s a different performance every night not only from yourself but the different people you’re working with. It’s kind of the best way to tune yourself up as an actor.
Dylan Baker: You’re doing the same thing as film and television. Trying to change the person on stage with you or next to you. In the camera, you just have to reach that lens. In the theater, you have to make that last row of the balcony feel what you want them to feel.
JD: We’re naked out there vocally, filling 1100 seats so there’s a lot of vocal warmup. When Gandolfini and I were up there, it was like two moose baying or braying or doing whatever moose do. It was noisy over there from like a half hour in. I’ve got to get the mouth working, and the breathing right.
On connecting with the characters
Janet McTeer: Personally, I think my character makes far too much noise. I agree with the two guys who think, “they’re boys. They beat the crap out of each other. They’ll get a good telling off and bit of a chat. End of story. What’s the big deal?” I’m little like that coming from a family of lots of boys. They hit each other. They just do. Most of them grow up okay.
DB: Alan’s a fascinating guy, but he’s so sad. I just think he tried to be a high-achieving lawyer and also have a family, and his first marriage fell apart because of it. I think he’s still so stung from that. Now, he has such a disconnect from people. It’s hard to put this guy’s clothes on. I don’t see too much with myself, but I enjoy playing him.
JD: Michael’s closer. I mean Alan’s a complete — well, there’s a prick inside me. I think that’s part of what the play is about. Inside every saint is a prick. Alan’s not me, but it was fun to create him out of me. At the end of the day, you really tap into yourself. But Michael — being from the Midwest a lot of us are kind of, “Walk all over me. That’s fine. Here’s my coat. Let me put it in the puddle for you.” The Midwest is full of guys like that.
On the rehearsal process
LL: For film and television you don’t generally rehearse this much. We rehearsed six days a week. Intense hours. I think sometimes in film you don’t want to over-rehearse it because you can lose the essence of what you want to bring to the screen, but here you can’t over-rehearse it. You could rehearse for six months if you wanted to, and you still wouldn’t be completely ready. You’re just trying to bring something new to it and are discovering things all the time.
JM: It was different from when I did the London production because then none of us had done the play before, particularly Matthew. Christopher was in the rehearsal room, and there’d be lots of discussions about, “Is this line meant to be aggressive? Is it aggressive in the French?” There were lots of conversations about the temperature and style of the piece. We found all that in London and most of the moves. They’re about 90 percent the same.
DB: From the very first rehearsal, getting in the room and looking across the table at the guy I saw originally playing Alan (and thought was brilliant) was challenging. Luckily, I had a guy in Jeff Daniels that was incredibly welcoming and supportive and would answer any question I had but would never offer anything that would get in the way of my performance and creating my own Alan.
JD: Whenever Dylan speaks, I have a twitch. I feel like that’s my cue but it wasn’t. It’s been great fun. These two characters think so differently. Where Alan is this out-of-the-gate prick: “I’ve got fifteen minutes. Talk.” Michael is, “You just threw up on my table. Don’t worry about it.” They’re completely different animals, and yet end up being very primitive in the end.