NEW YORK — ONE SHOE OFF. By Tina Howe. Directed by Carole Rothman. At the Second Stage Theatre.
The massive, surrealistic set depicting the exterior and interior of a Greek Revival farmhouse, which greets audiences attending the new play by Tina Howe, is a portent of the evening to come.
The house is decrepit and crumbling, prefiguring the relationships of the characters we are about to meet. Trees are growing inside and around it - bursting through the ceilings and the exterior and interior walls, producing so many leaves that in the first scene the inhabitants have to rake the floor of their bedroom.
As it turns out, that is one of the more rational actions of the play. Howe has produced an absurdist comedy of a type that hasn't been in vogue since the 1960s; if this were a revival, most people would complain that the play was terribly dated.
Lunacy and non sequiturs abound. This would be fine if there were laughs to be had or if the production was populated by performers who were genuine farceurs. But neither the writing nor the acting is up to the play's ambitions.
The play centers around a dinner party given by Leonard (Jeffrey DeMunn) and Dinah (Mary Beth Hurt) for their neighbors Clio (Jennifer Tilly) and Tate (Daniel Gerroll), and for their old friend Parker (Brian Kerwin), now a famous director.
Leonard is an actor and Dinah is a costume designer. In their frantic attempts to get ready for their guests, she tries on costumes from every theatrical genre, from Roman to Russian, but she winds up greeting them in her slip.
TATE is a book editor who is prone to uttering confused aphorisms on the order of "if the shoe fits, eat it." The chief hors d'oeuvre is a huge plate of carrots, which Dinah proudly announces were grown right in the house.
Parker finally arrives, covered with blood after being involved in a gruesome accident on the highway. The group eventually settles down to dinner, which consists of a large salad, served in a bowl the size of a bathtub, most of which winds up on the floor. Party games are played, and Parker makes a play for Clio, precipitating a bare-chested fight between him and Tate.
Parker's attempt at seduction causes Dinah to reveal a similar advance he'd made toward her years earlier, which prompts her and Leonard to reappraise their relationship. But the seriousness of the themes of fidelity and commitment notwithstanding, the play is so devoid of emotional logic and so witless in its absurdities for its own sake that we are unable to relate either to the characters or the ideas.
When DeMunn does a moronic impersonation of a fish, or Hurt flails about screaming at the top of her lungs, the chief emotion produced is exasperation. This is a cast of fine actors, capable of great emotional range, but with the exception of Tilly, whose kewpie-doll voice is made for comedy, they have neither the light touch nor the comic abandon to put across the strained material.
Carole Rothman, who has directed Howe's last three plays at the Second Stage, has a greater skill for conveying subtleties of character than she has for these shenanigans. With "One Shoe Off," playwright Howe has made a major misstep.