Nothing is more boring than listening to painters talking about painting, although writers talking about writing -- as they do to mind-numbing excess in David Hay's bio-drama "The Maddening Truth" -- comes in a close second.

Nothing is more boring than listening to painters talking about painting, although writers talking about writing — as they do to mind-numbing excess in David Hay’s bio-drama “The Maddening Truth” — comes in a close second. As modern American writers go, few lived as dangerous or glamorous a life as Martha Gellhorn, the war correspondent renowned for the harrowing dispatches she filed from conflict zones across the world. But to hear it from Hay, in this inert and talky piece, all was ashes to this celebrated journalist because she couldn’t write a novel like her onetime husband, Ernest Hemingway.

When first met in London in 1972, the 64-year-old Gellhorn (Lisa Emery) is so “desperate” to get back to Vietnam that she enlists the aid of ambitious young editor Peter Wilkinson (William Connell) in getting an assignment. Although Wilkinson is properly smitten with the gutsy and still-ravishing Gellhorn, he sidesteps the assignment and talks her into a personal interview instead.

“My suggestion is that we begin with nuclear disarmament,” Gellhorn says, when they sit down for the interview. Predictably, the published piece all but ignores this seasoned journalist’s progressive views about war and its attendant evils, concentrating instead on her notorious collection of husbands and lovers, many of them world famous.

Hemingway (Terry Layman) and Laurance Rockefeller (Richard Bekins) stand in for them all, but to call them characters is to flatter them. Costumer Theresa Squire has dressed the men with some individuality (although not with the bold flair of Gellhorn’s smart suits), and the few well-chosen pieces of furniture in Beowulf Boritt’s otherwise impressionistic set (dominated by a barren tree with manuscript pages for leaves) provide the cast with a solid place to park themselves.

But dashing appearances aside, the primary purpose of these stick figures is to act as sounding boards for Gellhorn’s bitter complaints and anguished doubts about the direction of her career. For, despite her scornful dismissal of the perfidious Wilkinson, she has been stung by his insistence that times and popular tastes have changed, and that honest, objective journalism has been eclipsed by the “new” novel, which conveys the higher “personal truth” of its author. The message is adapt or perish.

The subject is all very interesting, if terribly dated by modern literary standards. But Hay hasn’t even tried to find a dramatic context for Gellhorn’s conflict and, for all the bouncy exits and entrances in this fluid production, there is precious little action for helmer Carl Forsman to stage.

For their part, the all-pro actors appear uncomfortably stiff, forced to plunge into earnest declarations about the state of journalistic art without much character build-up to support their blustery speeches.

While Emery holds her head high whenever she is in lecture mode and is more than attractive enough to do justice to the famously fashionable Gellhorn, she doesn’t come alive until a late scene set in a BBC Radio studio. Here, at last, she can play something that might pass as action — even if it is only the narrative action of one of the first-person travel stories Gellhorn wrote late in life and which the playwright would have us believe represents the epitome of her long and distinguished career.

The Maddening Truth

Theater Row/Clurman Theater; 99 seats; $40 top

Production

A Keen Company presentation by special arrangement with Neal Weisman of a play in two acts by David Hay. Directed by Carl Forsman.

Crew

Sets, Beowulf Boritt; costumes, Theresa Squire; lighting, Josh Bradford; sound, Daniel Baker; dramaturg, Jonathan Shandell; production stage manager, Emily Arnold. Opened Jan. 30, 2008. Reviewed Jan. 25. Running time: 2 HOURS.

With

Peter Wilkinson - William Connell Martha Gellhorn - Lisa Emery Laurance Rockefeller - Richard Bekins James Hastings - Peter Benson Ernest Hemingway - Terry Layman
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