It’s hard to picture a foursome other than Jeff Daniels, James Gandolfini, Marcia Gay Harden, and Hope Davis as the squabbling parents in the Tony-winning God of Carnage. But we couldn’t expect them to stick around forever. Starting tonight, a new cast — Jimmy Smits, Ken Stott, Annie Potts, and Christine Lahti — will duke it out on the stage of the Bernard B. Jacobs Theater. Lahti takes over the role of perfectionist art historian and activist Veronica, and Vulture caught up with her to talk about the transition.
What was your reaction the first time you saw this play?
I saw actually the first preview, a long time ago. It was on my last night in New York on one of my theater trips, which I take a lot, so it was my only chance to see it. And I was floored. I was so impressed by the acting and the play, and there was laughing and I was actually moved by it. And I went by to say hi to Jeff Daniels, who’s a friend. I actually called up my agent a couple days later and said, “Okay, love the play, have to play that part.”
Have you and Marcia Gay Harden discussed the role at all?
Not at all, no. You know, some of the actors have gone back and watched the show recently while we’re in rehearsal, and that’s just not my process. I didn’t really want to hear her voice in my ear while I’m trying to find my own instincts about the part. This cast is so completely different from the current production’s — we look different, our skin color in one case is different, my husband is being played by Ken Stott, who’s playing him from Scotland. I didn’t want have those voices in my head because we’re really re-creating it.
Do you feel like you need to be a parent in order to play this role?
Well, I kind of do, because there’s no failure in the world like what we all feel as parents. It’s a universal feeling: If you’re a parent, you’re a failure. No matter what. I mean, yes, there are moments you’re proud, but so often we feel we’ve messed up somehow. Especially for a woman like Veronica, whose whole life has been her children. So if the child messes up, she thinks it’s a reflection on her. She has to be perfect: a perfect mom, a perfect wife, a perfect activist.
When I saw the play, the actors actually broke character and got the giggles themselves. Has that happened to you at all in rehearsals?
No, because we’re really rehearsing it like a drama. There’s nothing funny. We don’t talk about comedy, we don’t talk about laughs, we talk about the true pain and devastation of these characters — the catastrophic ending of a marriage. Honestly, people have said, “Isn’t it fun?” And I have to say, “No, it’s not fun. It’s stimulating, but it’s really sad.” We’re all sort of on this path to find the depths and the truths of these characters’ journeys. And it’s very painful for the actors to go through and very delightful and hysterical for an audience to watch. He [director Matthew Warchus] likens it to watching Candid Camera. The victims on Candid Camera are often not very happy and often show their worst colors. And the audience, of course, watching them be so deliciously human is just hysterical.
It’s been about ten years since you did The Heidi Chronicles. Was it this role in particular that brought you back to Broadway?
It was everything. It was working with Matthew Warchus; it was this role; it was doing comedy after doing so much hateful stuff. I’d been working a lot. I did a run on Law & Order: SVU and it was really complex and dark. And then I went into a movie, where I played an alcoholic, which was really dark. And then I thought, I’ll just do a light comedy. Oh, no, it’s really dark.
How does it feel to go into a play that already has such acclaim?
It’s scary on the one hand because we have really big shoes to fill — for God’s sake, Marcia won a Tony for this role! On the other hand, there aren’t a lot of great, great, great roles, especially for women, especially for older women, of which I am one. And I’m a stage actor primarily. I always have been, even though I took a break, but that’s how I got my training before I began — eighteen years of stage in New York. Yes, it’s daunting: We’ll all be compared to the other cast. It doesn’t matter — I don’t read reviews, I don’t care what other people say. At this stage of my career, there are no career moves anymore. I just think when a part like this comes along, you’ve got to grab it.