God of Carnage @ the Jacobs

There's something freeing about watching civilized people come unglued under the influence of alcohol, isn't there? It's like drawing a breath after you remove an especially unforgiving pair of pants and throw them in the toilet. Likewise it's embarrassing for everybody involved, them and us: you recognize these people because you are these people, and because drinking tends to make most of us both stupid and honest, which is how very bad things happen.

But here a very bad thing happens much earlier, when the ever-delightful Hope Davis, playing something called a "wealth manager" whose son has bashed another boy in the mouth with a stick on the playground, sits on a sofa in the middle of an enormous and elegantly appointed living room and pukes all over the coffee table. It's a marvelous, visceral stage effect—I doubt James Gandolfini's character was the only one gagging—but it also hits the play like a whip crack that sets four seemingly reasonable, mature adults hurtling down the track towards some childishly nasty truth telling, aided by, in no particular order, a bottle of rum, an apple-and-pear clafoutis, two vases full of lilies, a hair dryer, a cell phone, an unfortunate stack of art books, and a hamster on the loose in the wilds of Cobble Hill. In short, I don't believe a prop was wasted, which seems like a neat trick all by itself these days. Details tell, as it were, and you know I love that shit, and especially when you don't see it coming. (The vomit has been advertised in every review I've read, so I don't believe that's a spoiler, and there's no way not to react even if you know it's coming; what happens with the lilies I will keep to myself, although it was a moment of great beauty and pathos, comically speaking.)

The truths these grownups tell aren't exactly what we expect, either, exposing the cracks in two marriages even as each couple attacks the other. Gandolfini and Marcia Gay Harden, as the parents of the boy who lost two teeth, seem locked solidly in step at the beginning, determined to obtain justice—or at the very least an apology—for their son without overreacting to the incident itself. Admirable enough, yes? Also conveniently modern and not all that sustainable under the kind of duress that comes with the aforementioned projectile vomiting and rum. Gandolfini’s initial complacence and geniality mask a passive-aggressive brute who feels virtually nothing for his family, and who—more to his wife's disgust than offense—doesn't even have the balls to feel guilty about it. Meanwhile, she’s a control freak with limitless empathy for the victims of various crises occurring halfway around the world (she’s writing a book on Darfur), but close to zero when it comes to the messy reality of having to actually deal with the people in front of her. Harden undergoes a spectacularly physical meltdown over the course of the play, and the sight of her trying to wrestle that bottle of rum away from James Gandolfini while he towers above her—literally lifting her off the ground as she grips it—was one of my favorite parts of the evening. (Did I mention this is a comedy?) And that’s nicely matched by the look of horror on her face when she finally succeeds and takes a long drink, realizing she hasn’t won much of anything at all.

Davis’s meltdown is no less physical, but her release sets something loose in her that she seems almost glad for, as she strips off a long cardigan and perches on the edge of a table, sticking out her chest and licking her chops like Maggie the Cat. The rift between her and husband Jeff Daniels, as a corporate lawyer permanently glued to his cell phone, is more apparent from the start—who wouldn’t be annoyed by this asshole?—and seems easier to repair, but watching her take a stand when her moment comes was still a palpable thrill. And while Daniels spends a good chunk of time simply reacting to what’s going on around him, both in the room and on the phone, his innate air of intellectual superiority (it’s all in the grin, I think) is right in step with the overbearing straight-shooter he’s meant to be, and every time he shoots he's right on target. It also doesn’t hurt that he’s one of those performers who can act with his hair, and I mean that as a compliment.

What struck me most, though, was the equal opportunity that played out here; I can't remember a show that so evenly balanced the talents of its cast, with brilliant flashes sparking from each actor throughout the evening, although that made it surprisingly difficult to know who to keep an eye on at any given time. But of course that's precisely the sort of thing I would be happy to complain about more often.