Misery does not love company, or so we learn from Howard Korder's new play, a dark comedy that chronicles the brisk deterioration of a therapist's life and career. Dylan Baker plays the gentle protagonist who stands by in bewilderment as wife succumbs to illness and rage. As the play progresses, the tone moves from glum to grim.

Misery does not really love company, or so we learn from Howard Korder’s new play, a dark comedy that chronicles the brisk deterioration of a therapist’s life and career. Dylan Baker plays Korder’s gentle protagonist, who stands by in bewilderment as wife succumbs to illness and rage, ghosts of sins past come back to haunt him and various unhappy clients either betray or abandon him. Korder’s bitter message, about the near impossibility of doing good, is wrapped in some sharply funny writing. But as the play progresses, the tone moves from glum to unrelievedly grim, and the comedy tends to curdle into shrillness.

Neil Pepe’s production for the Atlantic Theater Co., which has successfully produced previous Korder plays, is skillful and polished, and features several neatly turned performances. Baker is terrific as the still center of a perfect storm of domestic and professional conflict. This gentle, understated actor is an ideal fit for the hapless Ben, who has just moved to New Mexico from Connecticut with his new wife, Nessa (Patricia Kalember). She’s a tart-tongued archaeologist collaborating on a book about the Anasazi Indians, but a plague of mysterious ailments has her distracted — as does Ben’s waning sexual interest.

As Nessa’s semi-hysterical brother Randy, a TV writer who can’t stop speaking in sitcom jokes, Todd Weeks gives a manic, endearingly off-kilter performance in one of the play’s best-written roles. Randy has fled L.A. to soak up some of the soul-enriching vibes of the Southwest, but is a little disappointed at his historic field trip to Los Alamos. “Where are the Quonset huts? Where are the lean young men in khakis and soft felt hats, squinting into the dawn?” he fumes. “They’re in the Sundance catalog,” Nessa snaps back.

Ben’s burdens get heavier at home when Randy picks up a comely New Age drifter, Kat (a pert, funny Liz Elkins), who moves in with the family, too. At the same time, Nessa strikes up an odd friendship with a morose young Native American (Rafael Sardina); she met him for coffee after he sent Nessa a threatening note, accusing her of planning to slander his people in her upcoming book.

Work provides Ben with scant relief from his increasingly frenetic home life (did I mention the bad plumbing?). Pro bono encounters in a prison with a sullen young Latino killer, Gilbert (Matthew Saldivar), are going nowhere, slowly. Group sessions with two lesbians and their neo-neo-Nazi son Josh (yes, he’s actually Jewish) are themselves models of dysfunction. And things really go south when a lovely young waif named Astarte (Heidi Armbruster) strays into Ben’s office, unfolds a long tale of her downward spiral in L.A. among Scientologists and later accuses him of sexual assault.

Korder’s writing is at its best when it’s snappy and crisply satiric — as in the scenes for Randy, or Josh and his two moms (Lizbeth Mackay is priceless as the sweetly daffy one). But the more reflective sequences with Gilbert and Astarte tend to drag — her long confessional speech feels like a once and future audition monologue, and the profane, Mametian fumblings of Gilbert are emptily sinister.

The play’s downbeat ethos — the title is, needless to say, deeply ironic — could be summed up in a line dispensed by Gilbert: “Other people and their shit, man. That’s what fucks up the world.” (Excavated excrement actually plays a minor role in the plot.)

But the play doesn’t have the depth of feeling or richness of comic observation to earn its relentlessly bleak tone. And it is simply overburdened with characters and conflicts — the array of miseries Korder visits upon the Job-like Ben to illustrate his thesis are too many. Small wonder he snaps: Toward the end of the unrelentingly sour second act, even Ben’s goodness is revealed as fraudulent, and this heretofore enduring character begins to act out, too, shredding our only point of engagement in the proceedings. It’s true the play concludes on a tentatively hopeful note, but it’s too little, and way too late.

Sea of Tranquility

Atlantic Theater Co.; 165 seats; $45 top

Production

An Atlantic Theater Co. presentation of a play in two acts by Howard Korder. Directed by Neil Pepe.

Creative

Sets, Santo Loquasto; costumes, Kaye Voyce; lighting, David Weiner; sound, Scott Myers; music, David Yazbek; fight director, Rick Sordelet; production stage manager, Janet Takami. Opened Feb. 25, 2004. Reviewed Feb. 18. Running time: 2 HOUR, 10 MIN.

Cast

Ben - Dylan Baker Nessa - Patricia Kalember Phyllis - Betsy Aidem Astarte - Heidi Armbruster Kat - Liz Elkins Josh - Jason Fuchs Barry/Johanssen - Jordan Lage Adele/Ashley - Lizbeth Mackay Gilbert/Roman - Matthew Saldivar Milton - Rafael Sardina Randy - Todd Weeks

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