Watching Martin Sherman's "A Madhouse in Goa" is like sharing a bus ride with a ranting lunatic: You know it's crazy, but you can't look away. Fuzzy surrealism mingles, sometimes awkwardly, with nightmarish reality in a satire on the betrayal of art by artists, and life by art.

In a tale that seems equal parts Tennessee Williams and Christopher Isherwood, the first act of “Madhouse” essentially is an evocative short story in which the owner of the hotel cafe (Daniel Gerroll) blackmails Mrs. Honey into giving up her cherished table to the visiting King of Greece. David, too, is blackmailed — into betraying his new friend Mrs. Honey.

Despite a naturalistic staging, the first act has the feel of a shaggy-dog story, which, we learn in act two, it is. Twenty years later on yet another Greek island, a stroke-damaged writer named Daniel Hosani (Russ Thacker), his caretaker, Oliver (Gerroll), and old friend/guardian Heather (Ivey) are meeting with a Hollywood movie producer who wants to turn Daniel’s famous novel — the one about the table incident — into a film musical.

All but paralyzed and speechless from drinking, drugging and the stroke, Daniel sits silently as Heather, who’s dying of cancer, arranges to sell his book to the crass, idiotic producer (Stear). Heather’s motives are more than financial: She was at Corfu 20 years earlier, and knows that Daniel’s book was a misty-eyed whitewash of real, more brutal events. She blames Daniel — she blames art — for avoiding truth and contributing to a self-destructive world that will be inherited by the generation of her beloved 23-year-old son (Mark Kevin Lewis).

If the incredibility of the first act can be excused by the fiction-within-a-fiction conceit, the second half can’t be let off the hook so easily. Modern atrocities pile up like so much sand on a beach: nuclear fallout, AIDS, terrorism and, finally, an erupting volcano figure into a story that can’t decide whether it’s earthbound or fever dream. A tuner movie in 1986?

Nicholas Martin’s fluid staging offers few, if any, clues as to whether we’re supposed to take the second-act soap opera seriously, but it does keep the improbabilities rather enthralling. Ivey, first as the Tennessee Williams parody and then as the breakdown-in-progress, gives a big, funny and moving performance, the centerpiece of both playlets.

Thacker is haunting as the mostly silent stroke victim, and Gerroll is particularly good in his second role as the selfless (at least initially) caregiver, while Stear is better in his first slot as the withdrawn writer (the superficial Hollywood producer is a cliche no actor could improve). Lewis is fine as a predatory waiter but a bit too broad as the carefree son in the second act.

First presented in London in 1989, “A Madhouse in Goa” has taken its time crossing the waters. Its tenacity and its flaws survived the trip.

A Madhouse in Goa

Opened Nov. 17, 1997, at Second Stage's McGinn-Cazale Theater;108 seats; $40.

Production

NEW YORK A Second Stage Theater presentation of a play in two acts by Martin Sherman. Directed by Nicholas Martin. Sets, James Noone.

Creative

Costumes, Michael Krass; lighting, Frances Aronson; sound, Kurt B. Kellenberger; production stage manager, Leila Knox. Artistic director, Carole Rothman. Reviewed Nov. 18; Running time: 2 HOURS, 20 MIN.

Cast

Cast: Rick Stear (David, Barnaby Grace), Judith Ivey (Mrs. Honey, Heather), Mark Kevin Lewis (Costos, Dylan), Daniel Gerroll (Nikos, Oliver), Russ Thacker (Daniel Hosani), Denise Faye (Aliki).

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