Eight times a week, Hope Davis must run a theatrical gauntlet in “God of Carnage” — she cries, she yells, she projectile vomits, she incurs wounding insults from her fictional husband, she launches lacerating barbs in return, she flails, she hyperventilates. It is a performance that leaves the audience in hysterics and its star breathless.
This story first appeared in the November 10, 2008 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
The scene afterward in Davis’ dressing room at the Bernard Jacobs Theatre is blessedly more serene — as is its inhabitant. As she lounges in a pair of fuzzy white slippers with little pink bows, the only vestige of her character’s antics is her diminished voice.
The play, the latest from French playwright Yasmina Reza, is Davis’ first time on stage in nearly a decade. She stars as Annette, a wealth manager who, along with her lawyer husband, Alan (Jeff Daniels), meets with a fellow Brooklyn couple (Marcia Gay Harden and James Gandolfini) to discuss a violent fight between their respective sons. What begins as a polite, yuppie conference — complete with espresso and clafoutis — quickly devolves into a raucous, take-no-prisoners battle that pits husband against wife and man against woman in all possible permutations.
“It is a really interesting treatise on human nature and the mask we put up until we can’t distinguish ourselves from Third World or violent countries….Deep down, people really aren’t so different,” Davis explains. “And there’s nothing in [Reza’s] plays that’s predictable: You’re never going from point A to point B; it’s careening all over the map.”
“Annette is seemingly a glamorous, demure businesswoman, and she becomes wild and degenerate and foulmouthed,” says director Matthew Warchus, who oversaw the London production of “God of Carnage” last year in which British actress Tamsin Greig played Annette. “Hope’s got a great range and is authentic in lots of absurd and hilarious ways.”
Indeed, Davis is most comical when her cool, patrician exterior is forced to break rank. The reeling emotional pitch of the play was so intense that all its cast members were dropping lines during rehearsals, according to co-star Daniels.
“I did that once. I just completely wasn’t there, and the play stopped and all of a sudden Hope turned and looked at me and all but channeled the line right between my eyes. She was just going, ‘Say it,’” he recalls.
Such onstage sparring abilities were honed during Davis’ years of theatrical experience. The middle of three daughters growing up in New Jersey, Davis began playacting at a young age with her neighborhood friend Mira Sorvino. But it wasn’t until a drama-focused semester abroad in London (in the midst of her cognitive science studies at Vassar College) that she thought, “theoretically, I’d like to do this.” Theory became practice when she moved to Chicago to join a theater group started by friends, followed by a breakout moment when she took over for Madonna in a 1988 production of “Speed-the-Plow.” Soon, New York beckoned.
“It never occurred to me that I could get jobs in film — that seemed like this other thing,” says Davis, 45, who lives with her husband and two young daughters in Brooklyn. “I just wanted to be a working theater actor. I wasn’t overly ambitious.”
Even so, these days Davis is perhaps most recognized for her work in indies like “Next Stop Wonderland,” “The Secret Lives of Dentists” and “American Splendor,” for which she earned a Golden Globe nod. Starting April 5, she will star in the second season of HBO’s “In Treatment” as a “single, 42-year-old, very successful, very lonely lawyer, who really wants a baby and a family and is nowhere near having those things.”
If all of her screen work has perhaps upstaged her initial theater track, it has not changed Davis’ professional approach.
“I’m not a workaholic,” says Davis. “I’ve never really had the desire to climb the ladder — then you don’t fall off the ladder, and you can just do your own thing.”