photo: Joan Marcus
The overarching idea is ripe for comedy - two civilized well-to-do married couples meet to smooth over a playground fight between their children but soon sink to sandbox level themselves - and the quartet of fine actors have a blast throwing mud at each other. Once the play gets up to full swing, there are laughs to be had of the "rage beneath the calm" variety, as well as the considerable pleasure of seeing these performers (James Gandolfini, Marcia Gay Harden, Jeff Daniels, and Hope Davis) play such primal emotion and childish behavior. But too much in the set-up of Yasmina Reza's play, translated from French by Christopher Hampton, is woefully contrived: we don't believe that the couples would stay in the same room together after their first insults, and after that we especially don't believe, as written and staged, that each of the couples would in-fight in front of the other. Since the premise of the bitter comedy depends on our belief in and recognition of the civilized social pretenses that the couples first exhibit, the careless set-up costs the play a good deal of its potential impact and keeps it from amounting to anything more than an actors' playground.