When reality bites, the first victim is fantasy -- and reality has sunk its teeth deep into this sweetly conceived but shoddily executed revival of Jean Giraudoux's 1945 wartime fable about a crazy old lady who saves Paris from the enemies of civilization out to destroy it.

When reality bites, the first victim is fantasy — and reality has sunk its teeth deep into this sweetly conceived but shoddily executed revival of Jean Giraudoux’s 1945 wartime fable about a crazy old lady who saves Paris from the enemies of civilization out to destroy it.

This would seem the perfect moment for a healing fairy tale about the triumph of human kindness over the corruptive forces of evil. But there’s no comfort in watching veteran troupers like Anne Jackson, Kim Hunter, Alvin Epstein and Sloane Shelton floundering without a directorial clue.

When Eileen Brennan bailed from this production, Anne Jackson took over the title role on short notice, and for this yeoman service she deserves a far more resplendent feather boa than the ratty tail she’s stuck with here.

Her warm-hearted Countess Aurelia is a bustling little body who knows how to get things done, less the ethereal romantic who rises to her noble ideals than the sensible soul who takes a broom to the evildoers who are cluttering up her kitchen. This earthbound Aurelia may yet find her wings; in the meantime, she’s still looking for her cues.

Kim Hunter as Mlle. Gabrielle, the Madwoman of St. Sulpice, and Catherine Wolf as Mme. Constance, the Madwoman of Passy, provide some support when they join the Countess in a surreal tea party to discuss the sorry state of the postwar world.

Heads bobbing in their outlandish hats, the three old dears dither on about their imaginary pets and ghostly lovers with delicious comic intent. But when Aurelia directs their wandering minds to the clear and present threat to “the future of the human race,” Constance snaps back smartly, “Oh, you think it has a future?” In a production with no discernible style — or even a consistent scheme for blocking stage movement — one lives for such moments.

Giraudoux’s absurdist visions of a world grown “uglier and uglier” and of men “changing into beasts” are articulated most pointedly in his inspired comic arias. Alvin Epstein, as the worldly wise Ragpicker, and Sloane Shelton, as Mme. Josephine, the bossy Madwoman of La Concorde, get their moments in the trial scene that determines the fate of the world. And Ben Hammer, as the most politically savvy Sewerman you’d ever want to meet, has a fine time defending the quality of life in his workplace (“down in the sewers you’ll find nobody but good Republicans”) and debunking the romantic legends of his trade.

With more than two dozen players crowded onto the patio-sized stage, the design team clearly had its hands full. Erica Hoelscher’s pretty rag collection helps to define one madwoman from the other, and set designer Drew Francis has wisely opted for a few gaudy backdrops and minimal sets. But even these few sticks of furniture prove more visually arresting than functional, once this mob starts bumping into tables.

Roy Steinberg seems to have thrown up his hands at the directorial task of keeping all this traffic moving, which is almost understandable. But he also seems overwhelmed by the richness of Giraudoux’s language, imagery and thought.

The Madwoman of Chaillot

Neighborhood Playhouse; 99 Seats; $19

Production

A Colleagues Theater Co. presentation of a play by Jean Giraudoux, adapted by Maurice Valency. Directed by Roy Steinberg.

Creative

Choreography by Margery Beddow. Costumes, Erica Hoelscher; lighting, Jeff Fontaine; sound, David Gilman; production stage manager, Dyanne Court. Opened, reviewed Oct. 3. Running time: 2 HOURS, 15 MIN.

Cast

Countess Aurelia - Anne Jackson
Mlle. Gabrielle - Kim Hunter
Ragpicker - Alvin Epstein
Mme. Constance - Catherine Wolf
Mme. Josephine - Sloane Shelton
Sewerman - Ben Hammer
President - Roger Serbagi
Baron - Dudley Stone
Prospector - John Viscardi
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