Actors talk about rhythm of 'God of Carnage'

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."

Harden: [My character] Veronica has a line: "I don't see the point of existence without some sort of moral conception of the world." She wants to live by those standards and morals, but her ideas aren't everybody's ideas. Someplace behind the main theme — which is the destruction of a marriage — those ideas float. I don't think they're answered, but I think they float. Yasmina [Reza, the playwright] uses things like marriage as a metaphor for the destruction of society.

Davis: The play is certainly about marriage; Yasmina wrote it about the dissolution of her own marriage, and she was very open about that. But there is also this theme of the 'us versus them' mentality that human beings don't seem able to escape from. First it's "us versus them," then it becomes 'me versus you' and then one kid versus another kid.

Harden: Before "God of Carnage," I'd come to a place where I hated acting. I hated the lack of roles and the miniscule responsibility that especially women are given in film, stirring cups of tea and listening and stroking your man. Then I read this play....

Daniels: Some of the best acting that you get to do is when you react and listen. You have to listen in this play.

Harden: It's kind of musical, what Yasmina has done in the writing, and each of us becomes a different instrument. I dropped the end of a line at rehearsal today, and the rhythm felt like it needed three extra beats. Eddie Vedder came and said we were all rock stars, and Tom Waits as well compared it to music.

Daniels: When Tony Bennett came to see us, he came backstage and said we were one of the best stage quartets he'd ever seen. There is a musicality to it — a rhythm leading to this, a rhythm leading to that.

Gandolfini: I get nervous when I hear stuff like that. I don't want people to expect too much. It's a very good, funny, interesting play … though I do agree that it does work as music. And if one person's rhythm is off, it's dead.

You've compared the play to a doubles tennis match.

Davis: Yes. It's very fast and you have to be on your toes all the time. You're working in pairs, yet you're also working singly. And you can't look away for a split second or the ball will be dropped and the game will stop.

Daniels: We all go so fast. It's like hitting a speed bump at 80 miles per hour when you flub a word or drop something. We got to a point where instantly, everyone else goes on defense. If I blow a phone call, they're all there. I can feel them willing me to the end of the call.

Gandolfini: You get to know each other pretty well.

Daniels: You're in the trenches together.

Harden: The play itself is such an unveiling. You have to be open and vulnerable. You don't want to do that if you're not with people you can absolutely trust.

I was exhausted by the end of the play, and I was in the audience. How do you pace yourselves?

Davis: It's like exercising. The more you do it, the more energy you have. It's exhilarating, not tiring. You feel very energized when it's over.

Harden: I found it tiring. The yelling and the anger. I got headaches from all the anger.

Daniels: I needed the day off emotionally.

Gandolfini: I thought I'd lose weight. I'm sweating like a farm animal up there, and I didn't lose a pound.

Did you worry that people would come in expecting Tony Soprano onstage?

Gandolfini: It's there, some of that stuff they expect, and it's also different, which I thought was a good mix for the first time out. It's something I could do. I didn't want to come out and do a play about Ferdinand II with a wig and totally blow it.

Daniels: I would pay to see that.

Gandolfini: That's the next one.

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