Richard Greenberg, Tony winner for "Take Me Out," continues to display a flair for witty dialogue in his intriguingly titled SCR world premiere, "A Naked Girl on the Appian Way." His characters always make clever points about parenthood and sexuality, and their pertinent observations are particularly welcome when scenes become too protracted and disjointed.

This review was corrected on April 13, 2005

Richard Greenberg, Tony winner for “Take Me Out,” continues to display a flair for witty dialogue in his intriguingly titled SCR world premiere, “A Naked Girl on the Appian Way.” His characters always make clever points about parenthood and sexuality, and their pertinent observations are particularly welcome when scenes become too protracted and disjointed.

Tony Fanning’s extraordinary set deserves special mention, because its stunning, impeccably tasteful display of kitchen, dining area, living room, staircase and outdoor garden provides sharp contrast to the unruly passions of its owners. A wealthy, successful couple living in the Hamptons, Bess (Linda Gehringer) is a charming, compulsively positive author of cookbooks and her husband Jeffrey (John de Lancie), the writer of “Business and Art — an Unlikely Interface,” and a man who despairs about forgetting and losing things. As he moans, “Is it possible I’m some kind of savant?” and she says, “If you hadn’t married me, you would have had to hire me,” the amusing chatter about dependency temporarily leads us to expect a sophisticated marital comedy in the Noel Coward vein.

It takes a while, but Greenberg finally flings out his shocker. Bess and Jeffrey’s adopted children — Lovable, dimwitted blond giant Thad (Terrence Riordan) and Dominican Juliet (Dawn-Lyen Gardner) — have just returned from a European trip and are planning to be married.

Rationalizations by Jeffrey and Bess are funny at first, as they speculate that foreign travel is confusing to people and homesickness “can lead to intensification of the familiar.”

De Lancie captures the addled shock and confusion of a father faced with the unthinkable; he has an asthma attack, which would have made more impact if seen onstage rather than talked about. Gehringer is an appealing actress who makes Bess both compassionate and caring. The trouble is, their responses don’t grow. Even allowing for terminally cerebral tendencies, and for the script’s references to them as “well honed disciples of denial,” these peace-at-any-price parents never display convincing bitterness, guilt, heartache or anger, and their lack of credibility freezes the forward thrust of the story.

It’s the third child, Japanese Billy (James Yaegashi) who commits artistic grand theft and walks away with the show. His appearance after the closing first act revelation is somewhat misplaced, because it cuts off immediate confrontation with the two children who dropped the bombshell, but he still emerges as a freshly conceived, delightful character. Rather than expressing horror that his brother and sister are sleeping together, he complains petulantly, “Why them? Why not me … Why am I never chosen?” His litany of grievances are hilariously written and expertly directed by Mark Rucker, and he’s memorably comic when denigrating Thad’s Rutger Hauer appearance and “Nazi” persona, recalling Thad singing “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” in grade school.

After Yaegashi later attempts to make sexual advances to both his brother and sister, we accept it, because the character’s insecurity and Yaegashi’s interpretation make these actions plausible.

As daughter Juliet, Gardner is competent, yet she never emerges clearly as a personality. Though presented as a person of clarity and intelligence (she tells her father that all this is “fodder for your therapy”), she never indicates that her desire to marry her brother might be an odd, offbeat or unsettling decision. Nor is her rapport with her brother strong enough.

Riordan gives a thoughtful and zany portrayal of a good-natured goon who, more than anyone else, has direct access to his gay and straight sexual impulses. He’s effectively puzzled and childlike at the fuss his behavior has created, genuinely unable to comprehend why his parents wouldn’t want him and his sister to move into their house and commence married life.

An additional character, elderly, hostile next door neighbor Sadie (Ann Guilbert), adds spice, although she exists more as a plot device to engineer Greenberg’s final twist than as an integral part of the puzzle. Guilbert’s battery of insults balance Bess and Jeffrey’s sweetness and light, and her widowed daughter-in-law Elaine (Mary Joy), while also a bit of a caricature, supplies entertaining moments. Like Bess and Jeffrey, Sadie and Elaine are authors, an unlikely coincidence that attests to Greenberg’s fixation with writers.

Nothing is made of the fact that Bess and Jeffrey adopted children of different races, and they react unrealistically, or not at all, to pronouncements that both their sons are bisexual. Despite these inconsistencies, the play boasts a unique concept and Greenberg’s idiosyncratic view of rampant sexual chaos beneath controlled facades. Its future as a crowd-pleaser could rise as all the ingredients mix and meld as neatly as Bess’ perfectly assembled recipes.

A Naked Girl on the Appian Way

South Coast Repertory, Segerstrom Stage; 507 seats; $56 top

Production

A South Coast Repertory presentation of a play in two acts by Richard Greenberg. Directed by Martin Rucker.

Creative

Sets, Tony Fanning; costumes, Joyce Kim Lee; lighting, Peter Maradudin; sound, Steven Cahill; production manager, Jeff Gifford, stage manager, Scott Harrison. Opened and reviewed April 8, 2005; runs through May 8. Running time: 2 HOURS.

Cast

Bess - Linda Gehringer Jeffrey - John de Lancie Sadie - Ann Guilbert Elaine - Mary Joy Juliet - Dawn-Lyen Gardner Thad - Terrence Riordan Billy - James Yaegashi

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