Michael Loprete's world premiere portrait of mediocre rock musicians who refuse to grow up is like a song with a great hook that falters in the verses and bridge. Whenever the central premise is pursued, "Out of Tune" stays on pitch, but it digresses repeatedly into shallow romantic relationships and doesn't build either characters or plot to a satisfying climax.

Michael Loprete’s world premiere portrait of mediocre rock musicians who refuse to grow up is like a song with a great hook that falters in the verses and bridge. Whenever the central premise is pursued, “Out of Tune” stays on pitch, but it digresses repeatedly into shallow romantic relationships and doesn’t build either characters or plot to a satisfying climax.

The story begins as three thirtysomething cover-band members — tactless Dan (Stirling Greg Gardner), peacemaker John (Michael Loprete) and passive Kevin (Michael Naughton) — realize that their rock dream is disintegrating. Their status is spelled out in an early scene when Dan’s ex-girlfriend Lisa (Kristen Shaw) calls him an “empty, pathetic guy” and barks bluntly after his plea for one last dinner: “I don’t like you, I don’t trust you.” Playwright Loprete is at ease with comedy, and his dialogue here has a witty, Woody Allen-ish quality.

John’s girlfriend Caroline (Loretta Fox) is Lisa’s opposite: a woman fixated on household improvement (“a birdhouse… door knobs… towel racks… it’s always something. You’re like my mother,” John complains). She also wants a baby and insists that he consult a doctor for a sperm sample to determine if he’s physically capable of fatherhood.

By the time the show takes on Kevin’s dates with Tanya (Nicole Ghastin), a repellently vulgar stripper who refuses to have sex with him, the production starts sliding downhill. Kevin has a good bit, describing his love for Buster Keaton’s “The General,” as Tanya stares, bored by this blow-by-blow description of a silent film. Tanya is written so unappealingly that Kevin’s interest in her becomes inexplicable and irritating.

Show makes excellent use of songs between scenes, such as “Love the One You’re With” and “Cheeseburger in Paradise,” and Frankie D. Harrison’s sound registers strongly when capturing hostile nightclub crowd noises. Despite this icing, helmer Phil LaMarr’s dramatic rhythm is choppy. Even the brightest scenes fade before reaching their full potential. Some of them are so brief, they feel like sketches.

Occasionally, writer Loprete gives LaMarr sufficient breathing room to show his directorial skill, as in the sequence in which Dan invites Melissa (Megahn Perry) to his apartment and they have sensational sex until he suggests she get her own place before they consider living together. Perry is superb delivering the play’s best speech (“you sleep on a futon, in sweatpants, eating tater tots in bed… you’re a pit stop”), letting Dan know that he’s only an interim episode, rather than anyone to be taken seriously.

Although Loprete hands his protagonists clever one-liners, he never gives the spectator reason enough to care what happens to them. It’s clear from the start that they have no musical future; more problematic is the realization that none of them ever had enough talent to succeed, so there’s nothing tragic or even sad about their fates.

As selfish Dan, Gardner puts across the despair of a man trying to reject and clutch commitment simultaneously, and with additional backstory, he could become a dynamic character.

Loprete capably portrays John’s insecurity and guilt, especially in scenes with his scatterbrained young secretary Tracy (Cheselka Leigh). He also has the kind of truthful moment the play otherwise lacks — performing his own original songs to a hostile audience. When he struggles to sing “Renegade on the Run” and cries out, “You don’t have to give me the finger,” the story temporarily touches the heart of its subject about failing rockers facing midlife crisis.

Michael Naughton is sweetly likeable as Kevin, a man who says, “You got to compromise with stuff,” until his compromises include rationalizing while watching faithless Tanya make love to another man. He’s lauded by John for being a “force for good” and “pure,” but the character needs more shading and backbone.

The two-person scene format feels rigid and overused. Wider interaction would help, and so would a wrap-up that packs an emotional punch; the one Loprete provides hints tamely at disaster, then backs off from anything catastrophic. In the end, the play slips out of tune because it doesn’t come to grips powerfully with the pain of aging or the devastating loss of rock ‘n’ roll dreams.

Out of Tune

Groundlings Theater, 99 seats; $10 top

Production

A Lollapaloser Prods. presentation of a play in one act by Michael Loprete. Directed by Phil LaMarr.

Creative

Sets, Joel Daavid; lighting, Shelly Morris; sound, Frankie D. Harrison. Opened July 11, 2005. Reviewed July 12. Runs through Aug. 9. Running time: 1 HOUR, 15 MIN.

Cast

Dan Stirling - Greg Gardner Kevin - Michael Naughton John - Michael Loprete Lisa - Kristen Shaw Caroline - Loretta Fox Tanya - Nicole Ghastin Melissa - Megahn Perry Tracy - Cheselka Leigh Lab Tech, Man - Timothy Brennen
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