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It's a delicate task recasting a hit Broadway play

The Associated Press, Wednesday, December 30, 2009, 6:50am (PST)

NEW YORK (AP) -- What do you do when your universally praised cast departs and you have to find another set of actors to carry on in a hit Broadway play?

Such was the challenge facing Robert Fox and Stuart Thompson, lead producers behind "God of Carnage," Yasmina Reza's Tony-winning comedy that did boffo business with its original performers and now has been recast with Jimmy Smits, Christine Lahti, Annie Potts and Ken Stott.

"What we wanted to do was ... make sure we had the right combination of people," Fox said. "You can have four names and (if) one name, despite being a brilliant actor or actress, doesn't fit with the other three ... you have to cast it as a group."

"I think that's especially true of Yasmina Reza's plays where the combination of actors is so vital in terms of having to relate to each other," Thompson added. "She's written four equal roles in this play."

Under the expert direction of Matthew Warchus, "God of Carnage" scathingly — and wittily — focuses on the collapse of good manners when two liberal, middle-class couples get together to discuss an altercation between their young sons.

Stars sell tickets. Or so many producers believe. After all, the two biggest hits of Broadway's fall season were "A Steady Rain," a two-character police melodrama starring the golden box-office names of Daniel Craig and Hugh Jackman, and "Hamlet" with British heartthrob Jude Law playing Shakespeare's melancholy Dane.

And they sold tickets at "God of Carnage," too. Weekly grosses topping the million-dollar mark were the norm during the production's first seven months with a cast that featured James Gandolfini, Marcia Gay Harden, Jeff Daniels and Hope Davis.

So what do you look for in their successors?

"Matthew's edict — as well as the producers' — was that they had to be four amazing actors," said Daniel Swee, the show's casting director. "They're really what drives this play. It's such a fantastic 'actor' play. I suppose all plays are, but this is four actors on stage for their own mini-marathon."

Warchus, who has directed other Reza plays including "Art," won a Tony Award for his work on "God of Carnage," which he also directed in London. He has his own, very specific ideas about recasting. And don't use the word "replacement."

"I learned a long time ago with 'Art,' which I think had 19 different casts in London, the play just deteriorates incrementally if you just try to repeat it or copy it," Warchus said. "You can't create a facsimile production and if you try to, you end up with second- and third-rate work.

"So what you have to do artistically is approach (the recasting) ... with a very open mind. You are looking, in this particular case, for a core set of actors who complement each other and contrast each other and have got the right amount of fire, wildness, power and detail the play demands."

Warchus said the recasting process for "Carnage" was gradual — sifting through a parade of actors who were out there, available and interested — and then coming up with plausible combinations.

"From my point of view, my focus is purely artistic combinations," Warchus explained. "But of course, it's a commercial production, so within the makeup of the quartet, there has to be marquee value as well. And to try to find that without compromising at all on the quality of the performances."

According to Fox, the first person to be cast was Stott, who originated the role in London — where he got rave notices — but who is unknown here. "To have someone who is proven and who is undiscovered in terms of an American audience, we thought was a very important thing," the producer said. "And then we needed to find his wife, and Christine, when Matthew met her, seemed to be perfect casting for that."

"And then it was to find a couple who were physically and chemically different but sort of a good match at the same time," Fox continued. "It's very hard to describe it but Jimmy Smits is someone who we have all talked about from early on when we knew there was a very good chance we would be able to recast. And Matthew met Annie Potts and fell in love with her."

As for marquee value, Smits, Lahti and Potts have extensive television recognition, a long list of diverse credits ranging from "L.A. Law" to "The West Wing" to "Chicago Hope" to "Designing Women" to "Dexter."

"If I hadn't done that, it would have been a hard thing to include a British actor," the director said, referring to Stott.

Since the original cast left in mid-November and the new quartet took over, weekly grosses have declined but they are still upward of $400,000 each week, quite comfortable for a four-character play on Broadway, especially one that has been running for some 10 months.

It helps, too, at the box office that Reza's comedy won the 2009 best-play Tony Award, a potent marketing tool for out-of-towners.

"I think the longer a play runs, the less it becomes about who is in the cast or about who is taking over a role from someone else," Thompson said. "The title 'God of Carnage' has been out there for a while now, and it is selling tickets, too."

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