"I came to get laid," announces Melinda (Claudia Christian) to her lover of 10 years earlier during their uneasy reunion. Although this hot come-on would suggest that Michael Weller's two-character study of adultery at Laguna Playhouse has full-blooded sexual power, sex is consistently secondary to tortured, analytical conversation.

“I came to get laid,” announces Melinda (Claudia Christian) to her lover of 10 years earlier during their uneasy reunion. Although this hot come-on would suggest that Michael Weller’s two-character study of adultery at Laguna Playhouse has full-blooded sexual power, sex is consistently secondary to tortured, analytical conversation. Richard Stein’s polished direction carefully highlights the honest aspects of the script, and his emphasis on humor sometimes triumphs over too much psychobabble, but the material is ultimately depressing and shallow.

For stories about infidelity to make an impact, it’s vital that viewers see themselves reflected in the experience. At first, Weller’s dialogue catches true feelings when Melinda says to architect ex-lover Adam (Kip Gilman) about his office sofa, “Wasn’t it hideous? Did your wife choose it?” Or when Adam surprises her with the admission, “I was in love with you.” Neither wants to be hurt or reveal their vulnerabilities, and their verbal sparring vibrates with a harshly promising edge, until it becomes obvious that the characters have little warmth and less complexity.

Gilman is refreshingly natural as the unhappily married Adam. His clothes, by Dwight Richard Odle, have a realistic, man-in-the-street look, his pleasant face attractively average. This lack of slickness makes him a believable partner in an everyday extramarital situation, and a gradual letdown is felt when the man defined by Weller as “used to giving orders” assumes a passive role and allows Christian’s Melinda to dominate and intimidate him with brittle, relentless bitchiness.

From here, the plot could be accurately pitched as “Same Time Next Year” meets “The Snake Pit,” because Melinda emerges as a manic depressive and proceeds to flounce about like an updated Bette Davis or Joan Crawford. It’s hard not to wonder why Adam never noticed her instability during their prior encounters.

Christian, a powerful, accomplished actress, gives her all to a ringing recitation of neuroses, energizing verbose passages with commanding personality. Inexplicably, her darker side doesn’t deter Adam; it heightens his desire, to a point where he’s willing to abandon his beloved son. Melinda, quite rightly, tells him, “I’d say you were taking gallantry to surreal excess.”

Worse, Melinda then backtracks and informs Adam she’s an amazing catch, a wonderful wife and mother, much stronger than her alcoholic husband, after we’ve witnessed a personality that would probably grind him to dust if they left their spouses and launched a life together.

When both contemplate a future fueled by their passion, all we can do is skeptically travel back earlier in the play, when she has two orgasms, and he doesn’t have any — or recall her revelation that meds stifle her sexual responses, and she needs to discard them to reach satisfaction, even if it triggers psychotic episodes.

Lack of sexual fire isn’t the basic problem here. What rarely comes across is a sense of romance, despite references to book clubs, the poetry of Emily Dickinson and David Edwards’ seductive, jazz-tinged musical cues. At one point Adam asks, “Did we ever dance?” and Lindy responds, “We skipped the preliminaries.” That encapsulates the problem in a nutshell: Adam and Lindy aren’t credible lovers because they never truly knew each other and shared that dance.

What the Night Is For

Laguna Playhouse; 420 seats; $52 top

Production

A Laguna Playhouse American premiere production of a play in two acts by Michael Weller. Directed by Richard Stein.

Creative

Sets and costume design, Dwight Richard Odle; lights, Tom Ruzika; sound, David Edwards; stage manager, Rebecca Green. Opened and reviewed April 3, 2004; runs through May 2. Runing time: 1 HOUR, 50 MIN.

Cast

Melinda Metz - Claudia Christian Adam Penzius - Kip Gilman
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