A movie star descends upon a middle-class Westchester household in this new play by Brooke Berman, which features Ally Sheedy as the celebrity in exile. The resulting domestic conflagration, unfortunately, is as predictable as it is uninteresting. Director Michael John Garces does little to mask the relentless artificiality of the writing.

A movie star descends upon a middle-class Westchester household in this new play by Brooke Berman, which features Ally Sheedy, a real-life ex-movie star, as the celebrity in exile. The resulting domestic conflagration, unfortunately, is as predictable as it is uninteresting. A mannered production from director Michael John Garces does little to mask the relentless artificiality of the writing.

College freshman Mike (Keith Nobbs) is the nucleus of the nuclear family whose dissatisfactions are detonated by the arrival of the blowsy, black-clad Tessa (Sheedy). Tessa met the paterfamilias at a party and has decided, for reasons never clarified, to take seriously his casual invitation to visit. She moves in with a passel of logoed duffel bags.

Her arrival is a boon for young Mike, an aspiring fiction writer hungry for experience — so hungry he accosts his seatmate on the train back home for the holidays, demanding to know his life story. Jamie (Jessie J. Perez) obliges with a peroration on his relationship with his girlfriend. “She is the piece that makes my heart real,” he concludes, which suggests Mike isn’t the only would-be writer around.

And, in fact, hanging distractingly over the proscenium of Andromache Chalfant’s awkward set is yet another wannabe Fitzgerald. After observing the play’s first few scenes from this perch, the zany Hope (Marin Ireland) introduces herself as the evening’s true narrator, perhaps unreliable, certainly irritating in her whimsical burblings on life, love and the art of writing. She sits opposite Mike in Fiction 101 and has developed a major crush on him.

She will regularly step forward to annotate the proceedings, which get complicated when Mike falls under the erotic spell of his parents’ unlikely visitor and Hope tries ardently to woo him back.

As Tessa, in flight from unnamed emotional trauma, Sheedy gives a game but seriously strained performance. With a hip thrust this way and a rhinestone-clad arm flung that way, it’s mostly a series of variations on the flounce. Tessa flounces seductively at Mike, more playfully at his uptight father, Stan (Mark Blum), but mostly in the direction of the martini glasses. But for all Sheedy’s determined strutting around in black suede boots, the boozy, bitchy Tessa remains a lifeless cliche.

As such, she’s in familiar company. None of the characters in the play has any real substance, although they are dutifully stuffed with eccentricities as well as the standard suburban dissatisfactions. Mother Liz (Betsy Aidem), for instance, is unfulfilled. “You don’t know me,” she admonishes Stan in a scene of familiar marital discord. Like her husband and son, she latches onto Tessa as a means of escape from the stultifications of domestic anomie.

The significantly named Hope, meanwhile, urges all and sundry to join her in shaping a new world, or something. “I don’t know a lot about what the new one is,” she says, “but I feel it inside of me and I know it calls. I mean, you can have what you really want. … You can create the world anew. Sing it into being. Like the Aborigines.”

Can the Aborigines sing us up a new play while they’re at it? Although the occasional line of dialogue flickers with insight, Berman’s writing is generally unfocused, repetitive and full of stylistic twitches. The actors, under Garces’ indulgent direction, tend to underline its archness, although Nobbs’ wide-eyed sincerity lends a measure of tender appeal to the confused Mike. Still, there is nary a scene in the play that flows naturally, with the recognizable rhythms of real human interaction.

The play’s title, for the record, refers to a bar in Chinatown that Mike likes to frequent. Judging from his description (“It’s this place that you don’t know exists ’til you’ve been there and then you can never find it again”), here at least Berman’s writing is grounded in truthful observation. The Triple Happiness sounds a lot like a certain funky Chinatown bar called Double Happiness. And, yep, having been there once, I never could remember where the darn place was.

The Triple Happiness

McGinn Cazale Theater; 108 seats; $25

Production

A Second Stage Theater presentation of a play in two acts by Brooke Berman. Directed by Michael John Garces.

Creative

Sets, Andromache Chalfant; costumes, Miranda Hoffman; lighting, Ben Stanton; sound, Sunil Rajan; production stage manager, Kelly Hance; stage manager, Jennifer O'Byrne. Artistic director, Carole Rothman. Opened Aug. 11, 2004. Reviewed Aug. 9. Running time: 1 HOUR, 50 MIN.

Cast

Liz - Betsy Aidem Stan - Mark Blum Hope - Marin Ireland Mike - Keith Nobbs Jamie - Jessie J. Perez Tessa - Ally Sheedy

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