03/27/2009 02:08 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Stage Door: God of Carnage , West Side Story

There is a new fab four - Jeff Daniels, Hope Davis, James Gandolfini and Marcia Gay Harden - and they light up the stage each night. Their collective performance in God of Carnage is spectacular. And it's a sobering reminder that beneath the veneer of civilization, we are all driven by baser, primal instincts.

Now playing at the Bernard Jacobs Theater, God of Carnage, the latest play from Yasmina Reza, is a textured musing on the nature of marriage, family and self-preservation. Reza, author of the award-winning Art, beautifully assisted by director Matthew Warchus, posits a simple scenario with catastrophic results. Two affluent Brooklyn couples meet to discuss a fight between their kids. They hope to settle the problem as cordially as possible. Instead, the quad de-evolves into a pugnacious marathon, neatly balanced between comedy and tragedy.

Reza is a master at creating and Warchus at staging the architecture of betrayal and the contradictions of human nature. We strive, we fail. We rise again - only to do damage to ourselves and others. Echoing these themes are Alan (Jeff Daniels), an arrogant lawyer defending a nasty pharmaceutical company; his wife Annette (Hope Davis), a wealth manager with a weak constitution; Michael, a seemingly genial wholesaler (James Gandolfini); and his wife Veronica (Marcia Gay Harden), an arty writer obsessed with Africa.

Veronica, the fiery center that holds the drama together, appears the most well-intentioned of the four. Though her son was injured in the fight, she's eager to repair the damage. She wants the other boy to apologize. But the play's essence is that good intentions often give way to a visceral dog-eat-dog clash. Husbands turn on wives, wives on husbands, brief alliances are formed - and discarded. It's full-front attack time; in the end, the four come to realize they are on their own. But getting there means smashing furniture, pretensions and each other - and it's a joy to behold.

Reza's script is sharp, witty and economical, and Warchus mines fantastic performances from his crew. Daniels, a slick enforcer wedded to his cell phone, begins as indifferent and ends in a heap. He hits his bulls-eye, a terrific counterweight to Harden's lofty aims. Davis plays wounded, apologetic and smug with élan, while Gandolfini injects his role with raw power. Watch him blow dry a cell phone to see what great stage work means. Finally, a dynamic Harden rides an emotional roller coaster; with every dip and turn, she reveals all the layers and ironies of urbane society. When she wrestles Gandolfini for a rum bottle, the wordless act speaks volumes. Set in one room with red walls, God of Carnage leaves its ensemble bowed and bloody - and its audience jumping to their feet.

Another crowd-pleaser, a tried-and-true masterpiece, is West Side Story. A bulletproof score, it can be staged in summer camp or on Broadway - and it never fails. In the current revival, Arthur Laurents, who wrote the original book and directs, has scored a triumph. Adding Spanish to the dialogue smartly kicks up the realism of this stylized show. But what makes this electric production at the Palace Theater so compelling - it's stripped down to essentials.

Lean sets and nuanced lighting underscore the musical's real thrust: a story of sexual obsession. Two teenagers Tony (Matt Cavenaugh) and Maria (Josefina Scaglione) meet at a dance and the erotic spark between them will ultimately inflame their world.

That world, New York's Hell's Kitchen in the early Sixties, is a gritty, dangerous one. Two rival street gangs - The Jets, led by Riff (Cody Green), and The Sharks, led by Bernardo (George Akram) - compete for a tiny piece of turf. Here, on the mean streets, the musical hits operatic heights as the characters battle assimilation, prejudice, desire and death.

West Side Story is really two stories that dovetail - the transgressive love affair between Tony and Maria and the war between the gangs. What's immensely satisfying is that it's told via Jerome Robbins' stunning choreography, elegantly reproduced by Joey McKneely, and Bernstein's luscious music. The songs and lyrics not only propel the action, several - "America" and "Gee, Officer Krupke" - are brilliant pieces of social commentary.

Best of all, the cast is roundly excellent. As Bernardo's girlfriend, Anita (an amazing Karen Olivo) has sass, attitude and pride. Scaglione's Maria is a study in contrasts - the sweet, virginal girl hides a steely heart. In this production, Maria's betrayal is potent; she embraces Tony even after he's killed Bernardo. Nothing has changed script-wise; Scaglione's multilayered performance, coupled with her gifted singing talents, gives Maria real depth. Cavenaugh's Tony is also a successful study in contrasts; desire will prove his undoing, but his performance rings true. Together, they make magic.

In fact, the entire cast - from Action (a frighteningly effective Curtis Holbrook) to even the small comic role of Glad Hand (Michael Mastro) - hits the right note. Remounting West Side Story is an ambitious undertaking that is long overdue. Every song, every movement, explains why this is a uniquely American classic. Audiences could see this musical 100 years from now - and it would still be perfect.