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Ralph Fiennes leads stellar British cast in Yasmina Reza's 'God of Carnage'

Ralph Fiennes leads stellar British cast in Yasmina Reza's 'God of Carnage'

French President Nicolas Sarkozy, on a state visit to Britain on Wednesday to herald a new era of Anglo-French friendship, should be cheered by the triumphant cross-Channel collaboration onstage at London's Gielgud Theatre.
"God of Carnage" is the latest play from Yasmina Reza, French author of the international hit "Art," making its English-language debut with a starry British cast including Ralph Fiennes.
Reza, who has written a book about Sarkozy, is a rare thing: a French author who is an international star, her work hugely successful in English and a score of other languages.
"Art" is one of the most often-staged and lucrative plays of the past decade and its follow-up, "Life X 3," has also been produced around the world. "God of Carnage" will likely repeat the success.
Like its predecessors, the play savagely rips to shreds the pretensions of the liberal middle class. The setting is the comfortable Parisian home of Veronique (Janet McTeer) and Michel (Ken Stott _ Inspector Rebus in the TV adaptations of Ian Rankin's crime thrillers). Their uncomfortable guests are another couple, Alain (Fiennes) and Annette (Tamsin Greig), whose 11-year-old son has bashed Veronique and Michel's son with a stick, knocking out two teeth.
The couples hope to resolve the situation amicably; they are deluded. Before long, their mild discomfort and unease have exploded in a torrent of anger, fear, jealousy and rage. There is drinking, fighting, vomiting and the destruction of tulips. Veronique and Michel's bourgeois parlor becomes the setting for a living-room "Lord of the Flies."
Reza's plays have a serious thesis: liberal "civilization" is wafer thin and we are all savages underneath. She insists her works are tragedies, not comedies.
Whether this is profundity or philosophy-lite is debatable. It is, perhaps, typically British that in Christopher Hampton's punchy, fluent translation, the fury is played for laughs. Comedy or tragedy, "God of Carnage" is an expert piece of stagecraft, and savagely funny.
There are few more hilarious scenes in recent drama than one in which Annette vomits over Veronique's coffee-table art books, prompting a horrified cry _ "My Kokoschka!" _ from her host.
Director Matthew Warchus is an expert in onstage conflict; he also directed the testosterone-fueled showdown between Jeff Goldblum and Kevin Spacey in "Speed-the-Plow," currently packing them in at London's Old Vic.
The cast bring both intensity and lightness of touch to "God of Carnage." Their skill was challenged by an opening-night power failure Tuesday that saw the last half hour of the show played in little more than the glow of the house lights. They never faltered.
Fiennes is all smooth, supercilious condescension as a corporate lawyer fielding calls from a pharmaceutical company whose drug has unfortunate side effects. The long-limbed Fiennes slouches like a weary gunslinger, wearing his cell phone like a pistol at his hip. His ultimate breakdown _ triggered when his precious phone is violated _ is shockingly sudden and complete.
Stott is excellent as an outwardly genial man hiding reserves of rage, as is McTeer as the liberal, humane _ but, you guessed it, inwardly seething _ Veronique.
Greig, a popular TV comedy actress, shines as Annette, the quietest of the four, the most nervous but possibly the most reasonable, who suggests they resolve things by admitting "there was wrong on both sides." Fat chance.
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"God of Carnage" is at the Gielgud Theatre until June 12.
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On the Net:
http://www.godofcarnage.com