Annie Potts, Ken Stott, Jimmy Smits, and Christine Lahti
in God of Carnage
(© Joan Marcus)
Annie Potts, Ken Stott, Jimmy Smits, and Christine Lahti
in God of Carnage
(© Joan Marcus)
No matter what you think of French playwright Yasmina Reza's astonishingly commercial drawing-room dramedies, one thing must be happily conceded: She creates characters that actors love to tackle. That's certainly true of God of Carnage, the Tony Award-winning play now at the Bernard Jacobs Theatre with Christine Lahti, Annie Potts, Jimmy Smits, and Ken Stott, who have recently taken over the leads.

Perhaps it's not entirely surprising that this new foursome is just as hilariously and woundingly effective as their celebrated predecessors. Each of them patently relishes the chance to chew the red-for-anger scenery Mark Thomson has provided with its slash of a parched-earth wall and two vases brimming with white tulips.

Presented in Christopher Hampton's agile New York-set translation and smartly directed for all the requisite agitation by Matthew Warchus, the play is so determined to make the point that civilized behavior is merely a thin veneer that it tips where it's headed from the outset. Jungle drums are heard as the lights rise on two well-off Brooklyn couples, Veronica and Michael (Lahti and Stott) and Alan and Annette (Smits and Potts), who are working out an understanding about their pre-adolescent sons, one of whom has assaulted the other. While all seems peachy as the married couples draw their negotiations to a close and begin socializing, the calm unravels at an accelerating pace. Before much time has elapsed, not only are the couples attacking each other, but the two marriages are rapidly falling into disarray.

Although Reza manipulates a few arguments too much and fails to find a persuasive ending, she never stops the laughs -- even provoking a huge audience roar when the coffee and clafouti served by Veronica lead to an intestinal complication for Annette. The yuks are unquestionably what delight the actors, as do the opportunities they've been handed to portray controlling people coming uncontrollably undone.

Lahti shows her softer side as Veronica -- who champions the arts and is committed to African causes -- until the situation at hand gets out of hand. Stott -- who knows his way around Michael, having originated the role in London -- has the impact of a charging hydrant and is his comic best when he fulminates: "Children consume our lives and then destroy them." Smits brings a rough edge to Alan, who seems to have acquired his suave manner after pulling himself up from a tough childhood, while Potts becomes increasingly funnier as she decides not only that her boy wasn't solely responsible for the incident, but that her husband's devotion to his cell phone must cease.

When Annette is recovering from her gastrointestinal mishap, she waves off her embarrassment by saying: "It's just bile -- it's nothing." Well, Reza is having a ball dishing out the polite-society bile, and it's not nothing. Indeed, God of Carnage continues to be quite something.