Jeff Daniels and James Gandolfini in God of Carnage
(© Joan Marcus)
Jeff Daniels and James Gandolfini in God of Carnage
(© Joan Marcus)
There are several things wrong with Yasmina Reza's God of Carnage, in which two upscale Brooklyn couples get together to ease the friction caused when the 11-year-old son of one couple knocked two teeth from the mouth of the other couple's 11-year-old son. But almost none of those flaws ultimately matters much, because the soigne yet knockabout comedy at the Bernard B. Jacobs is simply too entertaining from fade-in to inconclusive fade-out, especially as sleekly translated by Reza's usual go-to guy, Christopher Hampton, well directed by Matthew Warchus, and beautifully performed by four top-drawer actors -- Jeff Daniels, Hope Davis, James Gandolfini, and Marcia Gay Harden -- all of whom know how to be comic simply by immersing themselves in the characters' quirks.

Michael Novak (Gandolfini) and wife Veronica (Gay Harden) -- who inhabit a fire-engine red living-room designed by Mark Thompson with one long wall that looks like a stretch of parched earth -- have invited Alan Raleigh (Daniels) and wife Annette (Davis) over to repair their boys' contretemps. Although the quartet agrees to change only one word in a statement the Novaks have drawn up, the foursome quickly give in to differences harbored between and among themselves. Contentions and contentiousness mount further as Alan, a corporate lawyer, devotes an inordinate amount of time to his cell phone and a pharmaceutical-company client. Matters worsen when Annette sickens explosively, possibly as a result of an apple-and-pear clafouti Veronica has served.

Other inspired particulars which Reza has dreamed up include things like Michael's having abandoned his daughter's hamster on the street the previous night, and Annette coming close to ruining art-lover Veronica's valuable out-of-print Oscar Kokoschka catalogue. Plus, the company Alan represents turns out to make the questionable drug taken by Michael's mother, who phones incessantly. Even a pair of vases filled with tulips -- undoubtedly meant to symbolize wafer-thin purity and innocence -- sit at opposite ends of the inordinately high-ceilinged room like accidents waiting to happen.

So what's the rub? First, even halfway sentient ticket-buyers will know within seconds after the introductory jungle-drum music thumps just where the initially civilized action is headed. Secondly, this is one of those plays (much like Reza's Art) where people who should retreat start leaving more than once but never get out the front door. Thirdly, a good 10 minutes might be dropped from the 85-minute proceedings without harming the proceedings. Fourthly, Reza has no ending -- just an arbitrary finish. Lastly, her message that rational human behavior is no more than a thin veneer over animal urges may not be true of us all.

Called on to execute the requisite verbal and physical activity of Yeza's script, the acting quartet have a true field day. Looking impressively trim in the suit and raincoat which Thompson has picked out, Daniels starts with blond hair slicked back and with great cell phone dexterity but comes undone hilariously. Gandolfini, who appears almost pulled together and entirely affable at the get-go, is funny enough to suggest he's a handy candidate for the lead in a revival of Eugene Ionesco's Rhinoceros. Harden, who begins soft and then -- uh -- hardens, gets her laughs as a culture vulture losing her cool, and Davis, with a blonde pageboy just so, pulls off her surprising stage coup with unexpected delight.

So what if Reza is on a soapbox about humanity's weak underpinnings? The bubbles rising from the soap are buoyant.