Thandie Newton and Jada Pinkett Smith

Matt Charman's serio-comic new play, "The Five Wives of Maurice Pinder," offers an unorthodox design for living, but its plot-heavy narrative and over-reliance on contrivance weakens the potential of its intriguing premise.

Vincent’s mother Fay is exasperated: “You’re 17 years old with a book of baby names under your bed. You really ought to have pornography there.” It’s hardly surprising that her son is unconventional in regard to his manhood. Wouldn’t you be if your father had four living wives with another on the way? Matt Charman’s serio-comic new play, “The Five Wives of Maurice Pinder,” offers an unorthodox design for living, but its plot-heavy narrative and over-reliance on contrivance weakens the potential of its intriguing premise.

If Henry VIII was famous for multiple marriages, scaffolding magnate Maurice Pinder (benign but authoritative Larry Lamb) goes one better: He runs his marriages concurrently. Not bigamously, you understand, the deals between them are a private arrangement.

First off was Esther (Sorcha Cusack). Despite her capable, motherly manner, their marriage was childless. So he added Fay (Clare Holman) to the household, who bore him Vincent (Adam Gillen). And then came Reiki masseuse Lydia (pragmatic, calm Martina Laird) who gave birth to another son.

In Charman’s careful hands the polygamous household has its tensions but appears equable. Cracks only really begin to appear with the arrival of wife number four, Rowena (initially naive Carla Henry), whose understanding of the arrangement is compromised by her youth — she’s too young and selfish to maintain the balance.

A further intruder into the menage-a-cinq is Jason (nicely direct Steve John Shepherd), one of Fay’s casual pick-ups, who turns out to be an official man from the local planning authority.

Jason’s high censoriousness and confused attraction to Fay throws a major wrench into the works. But it also illuminates the playwright’s purpose — he’s intent upon seeing Maurice’s family non-judgmentally from different perspectives. Jason’s disapproving view iscompromised by the fact that he is cheating on his fiancee. Maurice’s arrangement, by contrast, is utterly open.

In the second act, with the household sliding from flux into breakdown, Charman has clearly made his mind up as to his own view which, hitherto, has been refreshingly even-handed. That’s the positive view. More negatively, it’s easy to argue that outside occasional strong moments of confrontation, much of the play merely drifts from character to character with little sense of purpose.

That problem is exacerbated by helmer Sarah Frankcom’s loose production. The director mines detail in the characterizations but fails to shape or drive scenes. The result is a plodding, under-energized rhythm made no stronger by dawdling scene changes with moody music and a fairly flat, naturalistic lighting scheme.

More comedy could be found with a tighter, crisper control of pace. At the other end of the spectrum, the climactic ending lacks dramatic punch because of the flaccid atmosphere surrounding it.

Lamb pulls off the difficult trick of making Maurice not just plausible but convincing. Gillen has a nice, light touch as the pious son, and Holman is in top form as frustrated Fay, her rampant cynicism turning into touching drunken rage and disarray.

But even she cannot disguise the fact that the play doesn’t really deliver. With the wives’ lives too neatly tailored to the writer’s design and the action too dependent upon coincidences, the play descends almost to the level of an event-driven soap. Charman’s National debut has smart moments but feels a draft away from its potential.

The Five Wives of Maurice Pinder

Cottesloe, National Theater, London; 281 seats; £29 ($58) top

Production

A National Theater presentation of a play in two acts by Matt Charman. Directed by Sarah Frankcom.

Creative

Sets and costumes, Ti Green; lighting, Mick Hughes; original music, Olly Fox; sound, Rich Walsh; production stage manager, Diane Willmott. Opened June 20, 2007. Reviewed June 22. Running time: 2 HOURS, 30 MIN.

Cast

Fay - Clare Holman Vincent - Adam Gillen Esther - Sorcha Cusack Lydia - Martina Laird Maurice - Larry Lamb Rowena - Carla Henry Jason - Steve John Shepherd Irene - Tessa Peake-Jones

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