This evening we saw the terrifyingly funny Yasmina Reza play “God of Carnage”. The cast was Jeff Daniels, Hope Davis, James Gandolfini and Marcia Gay Harden. A cast doesn’t get any better than that, and all four were quite possibly at their career best.

The play is breathtakingly funny because it is willing to follow so-called “civilized” people (two self-possessed middle class couples who start out the evening believing they are going to resolve their differences through reasonable discussion) down and down and still further down into the raw depths of long stewing hatreds and resentments.

The effect is completely bracing and exhilarating – and almost unbearably funny – somewhat like seeing “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” as a laugh-out-loud comedy. Even as I was convulsing with laughter together with everyone around me, part of my mind was spinning away, wondering just why this kind of thing is so incredibly funny when it’s done right (unfortunately it is rarely done right).

My best guess is that these people – through the permissive magic of theatre – are simply expressing the same simmering rages and feral emotions that lie within the heart of each member of the audience. In real life, we are rarely permitted anywhere near the point of expressing the black fires within our respective souls. And on those cases where we do let out our inner furious three year old, the consequences are generally disastrous.

So it comes as an enormous relief to see this kind of catharsis playing out right before us – with perfectly calibrated pitch, thanks to top-notch writing, acting and direction. The people on stage are merely expressing exactly what we all feel from time to time. But rather than suck it up, they end up releasing all that rage and bile. The shock of recognizing these emotions, the sheer cathartic release of it, strikes us as wildly funny.

How strange that our very fears of alienation, of loss of intimacy, fears of personal annihilation, can be the source of so much fun. What is it about humans that allows us to derive great pleasure from contemplating the pain of our own existence?

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