Hope Davis, Marcia Gay Harden, Jeff Daniels, and James Gandolfini in “God of Carnage”

Hope Davis (obscured), Marcia Gay Harden, Jeff Daniels, and James Gandolfini in “God of Carnage.” Photo by Craig Schwartz

Manners, etiquette, civility; all of it quickly travels south in Yasmina Reza’s “God of Carnage,” at the Ahmanson Theatre. My advice? Buckle or unbuckle your seatbelt and enjoy the descent into the maelstrom.

The star of this one-act play isn’t so much the story – which meanders downstream even as it pokes its head up a few alluring tributaries – but rather the interplay between the characters. Even so, the script is engaging and under the right supervision (in this case director Matthew Warchus) it provides a first-rate opportunity for its cast to display its mettle and finesse.

These are the same actors – Jeff Daniels and Hope Davis as Alan and Annette, James Gandolfini and Marcia Gay Harden as Michael and Veronica – who appeared in the play when it ran so successfully on Broadway. Harden won a 2009 Tony Award for her performance, but one may wonder why the award wasn’t divvied up among all four of them.

Events unfold one afternoon in the living room of Michael and Veronica’s well-to-do home in New York City. The set may not initially call attention to itself, but that rock slab of a back wall (a person’s home is their cave or lair, right?) and that bright red carpet (an open wound, or the magma that consumes us all?) begin to mirror the changes between the characters as the work evolves/devolves.

On the playground of the school where both children attend, Alan and Annette’s young son has clobbered the son of Michael and Veronica with a stick, dislodging two teeth. The meeting between concerned parents is simply to discuss how the one child should apologize to the other. Manners, etiquette, civility, it’s all on the table, and it hasn’t floated away yet.

But it does soon enough, dislodged like those little pearly whites, and as with Reza’s masterful “Art” (which in its first New York and L.A. incarnation featured Victor Garber, Alan Alda, and Alfred Molina), the concept is once again illustrated that the beast within can pick the lock and scamper out.

As I said, the star of the show isn’t the story itself, which is a variant of the gradual unmasking that we’ve seen, most famously, in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” (as well as Albee’s “Sylvia, or, Who is the Goat?” for that matter), but how the actors interpret each downshift as the grade steepens. After Michael introduces a bottle of rum this tragicomedy enters into a freefall that is both poignant and humorous: We think we’re watching Alan walking over to comfort an emotionally distraught Veronica, but he’s actually retrieving the bottle of rum that’s been placed just on the other side of where she crouches.

I don’t know if this is a cynical portrait of human nature or more of a cautionary tale, but “carnage” isn’t just a word in the title, and the picture as it emerges indicates that probably it’s impossible to shake off our baser selves. Under that pliable veneer we wrap around ourselves – and the abuse and misuse of cell phones comes in for some special treatment here – what are we left with? Who are we then? And when we watch someone vomiting on rare art books, well, that’s a Ph.D. thesis in itself, isn’t it?

Daniels, Davis, Gandolfini and Harden not only enact their characters, they inhabit them. As an ensemble piece of exquisite acting, “God of Carnage” hits all the marks. It’s rare to see theatrical conversation that runs on so many rails at once, not just on what is spoken verbally but through tone, volume, pauses, nuances, and body language. The pleasure of watching this quartet of performers is immense.

God of Carnage, admirably translated from the French by Christopher Hampton, plays Tuesday through Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 1 and 6:30 p.m., with an added matinee at 2 p.m. on Thursday, May 12, but without an evening show on Sunday, May 15, at the Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown Los Angeles in the Music Center. Tickets, $20 to $120. Closes May 29. Call (213) 972-4400, or go to CenterTheatreGroup.org. ER

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