Something has gone radically wrong with "Book of Days," a new play by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lanford Wilson. The play, which owes a debt to such celebrated small-town classics as "Our Town" and "Under Milk Wood," features a coherent first act. But in act two, it goes wildly off the rails while switching allegiance to "King's Row"-style melodrama.

Something has gone radically wrong with “Book of Days,” a new play by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lanford Wilson. The play, which owes a debt to such celebrated small-town classics as “Our Town” and “Under Milk Wood,” features a coherent first act. But in act two, it goes wildly off the rails while switching allegiance to “King’s Row”-style melodrama.

Even the creators and producers of the play don’t seem to know what they have on their hands, promoting it variously as a murder-mystery, “a comedy of family loyalty, small-town deceit and Midwestern tenacity” and a “fascinating new drama.” To add spice to the steaming stew, Wilson has used Shaw’s “Saint Joan” as its springboard.

“Book of Days” was commissioned, developed and produced by Jeff Daniels’ Purple Rose Theater in Chelsea, Mich., and won the American Theater Critics Assn.’s 1998 best play award. This current co-production of Hartford Stage and the Repertory Theater of St. Louis has a new director, longtime Wilson collaborator Marshall W. Mason, and underwent revisions between St. Louis and Hartford. The problem is Wilson and Mason seem to have revised it to the point of losing control.

The production is handsome and thoroughly professional. John Lee Beatty provides a cleverly complex, elegant wooden set that takes a role in the action. The physical staging, with a minimum of props, is deft, and the cast of 12 works well together.

The play begins with the entire cast coming onstage to deliver a series of documentary facts about the town of Dublin, Missouri. We quickly learn that Dublin is dominated by a cheese factory and a fundamentalist church, and that its community theater — believe it or not — is producing “Saint Joan,” directed Boyd Middleton (Jonathan Hogan), whose successful Broadway, film and TV career has been blighted by a major tax problem and accusations of child abuse stemming from an assignation with a 16-year-old prostitute.

Although Middleton’s story is presented as an important element of “Book of Days,” it really doesn’t have much to do with the central storyline, which concerns the mysterious death of the cheese factory’s owner Walt Bates (a charismatic Jim Haynie) during a tornado.

Wilson attempts to illustrate art and life interacting as Ruth Hoch (Suzanne Regan), the factory bookkeeper, rehearses and plays the title role in “Saint Joan” and becomes obsessed with revealing the truth about Bates’ death. The play also includes lengthy discussions between director Middleton and the town’s fundamentalist minister (John Lepard) on Shaw’s religious views, and parallels are drawn between today’s church and the inquisitorial one of Joan’s age.

Despite the play’s overstuffed feeling, the central couple engages the audience’s sympathy. Regan’s Ruth is married to Len (Matthew Rauch), who is passionate about cheese and is attempting to create some great cheeses rather than sell most of the factory’s product to Kraft. At least in part because they have the best-written roles, Regan and Rauch give the production’s most telling performances.

Other characters include the son of the murdered cheese millionaire, a womanizer who always wore condoms while having sex with his wife, and thus can have his marriage annulled for lack of consummation, according to local church law. In this underwritten role, Alan Campbell is far less convincing than he was on Broadway in “Sunset Boulevard.” Broadway vet Dee Hoty, meanwhile, clearly enjoys her role as Len’s mother, the dean of a junior college who in her youth was stoned at Woodstock.

The script has puzzling idiosyncrasies: the repetition of the line “If you listen very carefully,” followed by silence and a distant gunshot; the replaying of a scene from act one in act two; and a scene in which one actress briefly impersonates another role. It becomes increasingly odd as it goes along, never more so than in a second-act scene in which churchgoers begin to speak in tongues and have religious fits. The Hartford opening-night audience found the scene a little too hilarious, and the play went out the window.

Book of Days

(MYSTERY; HARTFORD STAGE CO.; 489 SEATS; $ 43 TOP)

Production

HARTFORD, Conn. A Hartford Stage Co. presentation, produced in collaboration with the Repertory Theater of St. Louis, of a play in two acts by Lanford Wilson. Directed by Marshall W. Mason.

Crew

Set, John Lee Beatty; costumes, Laura Crow; lighting, Dennis Parichy; sound, Chuck London; stage manager, Denise Yaney. HSC artistic director, Michael Wilson. Opened, reviewed Oct. 27, 1999. Running time: 2 HOURS, 35 MIN.

With

Ruth Hoch ..... Suzanne Regan Len Hoch ..... Matthew Rauch Boyd Middleton ..... Jonathan Hogan Ginger Reed ..... Shannon Burkett Martha Hoch ..... Dee Hoty Walt Bates ..... Jim Haynie Sharon Bates ..... Pamela Dunlap James Bates ..... Alan Campbell Luann Bates ..... Bellamy Young Earl ..... Boris McGiver Rev. Bobby Groves ..... John Lepard Sheriff Conroy Atkins ..... Tuck Milligan

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