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‘God of Carnage’s’ original cast is ready to fight again

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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

One of the main scheduling road blocks was Davis’ commitment to an HBO drama series called “The Miraculous Year.” The pilot, directed by Oscar-winner Kathryn Bigelow and written by John Logan (“Red”), follows the members of a sprawling New York family, including a venerated Broadway composer. The pilot began filming last summer, with a cast that included Norbert Leo Butz as the composer and Davis as his sister.

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A commitment to the series meant that Davis’ availability to do “Carnage” in 2011 looked iffy, said her manager, Perri Kipperman. But in November, HBO decided it would not be picking up the series, which in effect freed the actress to do the play.

Other cast members were able to rearrange their screen projects around “Carnage.” Gandolfini is shooting three movies almost in succession in the months before rehearsals begin, according to his managers. The actor has roles in David Chase’s “Twylight Zones,” the first film by the creator of “The Sopranos”; Stephen Daldry’s “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,” based on the Jonathan Safran Foer novel; and Andrew Dominik’s “Cogan’s Trade.”

Daniels recently finished shooting the science fiction movie “Looper,” directed by Rian Johnson. He also has been touring in his singing show — in which he performs the guitar, harmonica and other instruments — and is working on a new play for his Michigan-based company, the Purple Rose Theatre. Harden finished filming a few independent movies late last year, and is tentatively scheduled to shoot “Back Roads,” directed by Adrian Lyne, this summer after the Ahmanson engagement of “Carnage” ends.

Another challenge involved coordinating the personal schedules of the cast — none of whom lives in L.A. (Davis, Gandolfini and Harden live in New York, while Daniels lives in Michigan.) Those with children who are still in school faced an additional hurdle.

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Harden said that she home-schools her three children — a 12-year-old and 6-year-old twins. She and her husband are planning to transplant the entire family to L.A. for the duration of the run, which involves finding a temporary home and tutors. “That was a bit of a challenge. But it all worked out,” she said.

Davis, who is married with two children who attend school, is exploring the possibility of bringing the children to L.A. for part of the run, according to her manager. Daniels has three children who are all grown. Gandolfini has a son from a previous marriage.

Producers said that the cast officially signed on just before the holidays in December. Rehearsals are scheduled to take place in New York for one week in late March, and then another week in L.A., before preview performances begin April 5. Matthew Warchus, who won the Tony for directing “Carnage” on Broadway, is returning to stage the play in L.A.

The Ahmanson’s production arrives coincidentally at the same time that Roman Polanski is working on a film adaptation of the play in France. Of the original Broadway ensemble, only Gandolfini was approached to star in the Polanski movie, according to representatives for the cast. The “Sopranos” actor was ultimately unable to accept “for numerous reasons,” said one of his managers, who declined to elaborate. The movie cast includes Jodie Foster, John C. Reilly, Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz.

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Recent and future regional productions of “Carnage” include Chicago, Seattle, San Jose, Philadelphia and Hartford, Conn. But L.A. is the only city to experience the original Broadway cast.

Daniels said that returning to “Carnage” probably won’t offer “the initial jolt of electricity” as the Broadway run. “But now it becomes about the enjoyment of this thing we did together,” he said. “There won’t be the pressure of the Tonys. My guess is that it will probably be the best production of all, simply because we’ll be there for the love of doing it.”

david.ng@latimes.com


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