Richard Nelson has always written with perception and literary flair about the profound sense of dislocation afflicting people cut off from their geographic roots and psychic inclinations. The situation he sets up in "Rodney's Wife" seems ideal for his scalpel-sharp wit: a washed-up American movie star and his entourage in 1962 Rome, out of their element in the boisterous atmosphere of the Italian film industry and bored out of their skulls by the earthy vulgarity of the filmmakers at Cinecitta.

Richard Nelson has always written with perception and literary flair about the profound sense of dislocation afflicting people cut off from their geographic roots and psychic inclinations. The situation he sets up in “Rodney’s Wife” seems ideal for his scalpel-sharp wit: a washed-up American movie star and his entourage in 1962 Rome, out of their element in the boisterous atmosphere of the Italian film industry and bored out of their skulls by the earthy vulgarity of the filmmakers at Cinecitta. But the tiny minds in these craniums are hardly worth probing, and once their prejudices have been aired and their scandalous secrets exposed, there’s nowhere to go but home in disappointment.

Nelson the director gives Nelson the playwright a leg up with this lightweight material by assembling a top-flight cast and a hotshot design team to create the illusion of greater depth. Susan Hilferty does her sleight of hand literally, with a false-bordered set that cunningly expands the depth of perspective on the minimally decorated rented villa housing faded star Rodney (David Strathairn) and his household. David Weiner’s soft-focus lighting is kind to one and all, but is especially flattering to Haviland Morris, luminous in the impossibly demanding title role of Rodney’s second wife, Fay.

Fay is a woman with nothing to do and nothing to say and little to command our attention but the mysterious air of misery that constantly hovers over her. “I am the queen of hobbies,” she says, in a candid moment. “I’ve learned how to knit. And draw. And cook. And bind books from some prop guy on some set somewhere.”

It’s a telling description of the life of a trophy wife in the pre-liberated days when the primary job of a spouse was to reflect her husband’s professional stature and social worth.

But it’s too glib a rationale for the moral pickle Fay gets herself into while Rodney is off making his spaghetti Western –and way too shallow to pass for true insight. That Fay always seems to be on the verge of revealing a more substantial side to her character is largely an illusion created by Morris’ seductive performance.

Strathairn is more problematical as Rodney, the star around whom the entire household revolves. An actor with vast reserves of sensitivity, he offers an emotionally valid perf of Rodney, a sodden shadow of a man who has to drink himself stupid to get through his daughter’s engagement party. Although Nelson does not enlighten us on the circumstances that caused his professional humiliation and undermined his manhood so badly that he has to drop to his knees and beg his wife to go to bed with him, Strathairn is unsparing in his depiction of the ultimate wreckage.

But the thesp lacks weight as the other Rodney, the egotistical star-that-was who still rules the domestic roost, dominating every scene with his bigoted opinions and boozy bravado. Strathairn is so obviously uncomfortable with this side of the character that there’s little ballast for the supporting perfs.

Although Maryann Plunkett’s technique is admirable, she seems too overbearing for Rodney’s younger sister Eva, who is said to defer to him “like a hungry puppy to its master,” just as Jessica Chastain, as his daughter Lee, seems too unmoved by the broken, pitiful specimen her father has become. Without some vestigial signs of his former star power and personal magnetism, Rodney is too diminished a figure to support the neuroses of all the women he has supposedly suppressed.

Deprived of a proper focus for all their raging disappointments with the inconsequential lives they lead, Nelson’s rootless Americans strike out at one another with vicious tongues and underhanded sexual weaponry. But the blows rarely land; and when they do, they don’t break the skin.

Rodney's Wife

Playwrights Horizons; 198 seats; $55 top

Production

A Playwrights Horizons presentation of a play in one act written and directed by Richard Nelson.

Creative

Sets and costumes, Susan Hilferty; lighting, David Weiner; sound, Scott Lehrer; production stage manager, Matthew Silver. Reviewed Nov. 29, 2004. Opened Dec. 1. Running time: 1 HOUR, 45 MIN.

Cast

Rodney, an actor - David Strathairn Fay, his second wife - Haviland Morris Eva, his sister - Maryann Plunkett Lee, his daughter - Jessica Chastain Henry, his manager - John Rothman Ted - Jesse Pennington

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