Rodney's Wife

Presented by and at Playwrights Horizons, 416 W. 42 St., NYC, Dec. 1-19. Casting by James Calleri, C.S.A., Alaine Alldaffer, Cindy Tolan.

The subject may be explosive, but the actors treading through "Rodney's Wife" may as well be drinking tea at the Plaza. As written and directed by Richard Nelson (didn't anyone ever tell him not to direct his own plays?), the 100-minute intermissionless work makes for an inert evening.

David Strathairn is Rodney, an actor making a spaghetti western in Rome in 1962. Living with him in a shadowy villa that "feels like we're at the edge of the world" are his childless second wife, Fay (Haviland Morris); his sister, Eva (Maryann Plunkett); Lee (Jessica Chastain), his daughter by his first wife; and his manager, Henry (John Rothman). Hovering around the edges is Lee's perhaps boyfriend, Ted (Jesse Pennington).

Eva, a widow, has a yen for her brother. Henry misses his wife back in the States. Ted likes Lee, but she and Fay have a secret that precipitates late-night revelations, quarrels, and unresolved alignments.

The characters moon about like leftovers from an Antonioni film and Nelson surrounds them with undercurrents of tension. An auto accident witnessed by Ted in which "the cars were mangled together" becomes a metaphor for these messy lives. Fay's remembered embarrassment of her first period reveals the pain beneath pleasure.

The performers go through the hoops, hinting at their characters' suppressed passions. Plunkett has the liveliest role, Morris the most mysterious one, and Strathairn is fine as always. But they can't overcome slack direction and a lackluster drama whose most telling line is "Do you want me to stop talking?"

Susan Hilferty's scenic and costume designs envelop us in a twilight world. Scott Lehrer's realistic sounds—bells, a dog's barking—bring us back to reality. But it's David Weiner's superbly detailed lighting that truly haunts. It almost makes the audience think that it's seeing something significant.