John Guare has added another chapter to his play cycle about a former Civil War nurse and the three veterans who founded a Utopian society on Nantucket Island and came to grief after the failure of their idealistic experiment. ''Lydie Breeze,'' produced earlier this season at the American Place Theater, was set in 1895 and dealt with the bizarre and contaminated consequences of the events of ''Gardenia,'' the episode now on view at the Manhattan Theater Club.
Beginning in 1875 on a stretch of Nantucket beach, ''Gardenia'' tells how Dan Grady (James Woods) rejoins the group after a tour of duty as a railroad conductor. Grady brings with him a little black bag of loot he seized when its owners (a pair of would-be bribers) quarreled and killed each other en route to Washington. Grady's windfall is more than enough to pay for Amos Mason (Edward Hermann) to attend Harvard Law School and to finance a trip abroad for Joshua Hickman (Sam Waterston). Joshua's laboriously produced manuscript has just been rejected by William Dean Howells of The Atlantic Monthly.
Between Acts I and II, Joshua returns unexpectedly to Nantucket, discovers the infidelity of his wife, Lydie Breeze (Jobeth Williams) with Grady, slays his rival, and goes to jail for manslaughter. By Act II (Charlestown Prison, 1884), Joshua had written an account of earlier events to which Howells has responded favorably. He is visited in jail by upwardly mobile lawyer Amos and downwardly mobile Lydie. For their own quite different reasons, each wishes Joshua wouldn't publish. His decision ends the play.
As usual, Mr. Guare's writing displays a gift for the occasional lively scene and the oddball character (in this case, the awkwardly aspiring Amos before he declines into sleek opportunism). Under the guidance of film director Karel Reisz (making his debut in the theater), 'Gardenia'' is best served by the men in the cast. But the work remains on the whole an unmoving, unclear, tediously talky drama about dreams gone sour and hopes unfulfilled.