From its Manhattan location to its simmering atmosphere of summer heat, homoeroticism and violence to the flat-front polyester trousers its crooked-cop characters wear, "A Prayer for My Daughter" is redolent of the place and time of its first production -- at Joe Papp's Public Theater circa 1977.

From its Manhattan location to its simmering atmosphere of summer heat, homoeroticism and violence to the flat-front polyester trousers its crooked-cop characters wear, “A Prayer for My Daughter” is redolent of the place and time of its first production — at Joe Papp’s Public Theater circa 1977. Despite bravura perfs in its lengthy second-act crescendo, however, Dominic Hill’s production fails to deliver a convincing argument that Thomas Babe’s play makes sense outside the particular context of post-Vietnam America.

Set on the Fourth of July in a downtown Manhattan precinct — beautifully evoked by Giles Cadle’s traverse set — play is a poetic meditation on the lack of clear boundaries between masculine and feminine, and good and evil. It quickly becomes clear that the two police sergeants are as messed up as the pair of murder suspects they’re interrogating.

Cop Kelly (Matthew Marsh) fends off phone calls from his suicidal daughter Margie, while his partner Jack (Corey Johnson) is a heroin addict. The suspect Sean (Sean Chapman), a gay Vietnam vet, refers alternately to feral smack-head teenager Jimmy (Colin Morgan) as his lover and his “daughter.”

Fathers and daughters becomes a dominant theme: Oft-divorced Sean is the father of two girls, while Jimmy is given a lengthy second-act aria about the recent birth of his own daughter, and Kelly is unable to cope with Margie’s unseen despair. The language, imagery and intensity of feeling build slowly but effectively, enabling auds to accept increasingly symbolic imagery, in particular the haunting sight of Kelly cradling the near-naked Jimmy in his arms: a precinct Pieta.

All design elements are well employed to convey switches from the relatively naturalistic norm of action into more dreamlike passages. Bruno Poet’s lights shift from an overall wash to yellowy pools focused on the speakers, and Dan Jones’ score of wind chimes and nighttime noises creates a sense of otherworldliness.

The first act is nonetheless hard going: Hill’s production initially tries too hard to create a brittle cop-shop atmosphere, with the actors self-consciously straining to deliver Babe’s heightened New Yorkese (“We ain’t gonna squeeze a fly turd out of this if you don’t tell me what I can readily discern from your rap sheet”).

Part of the problem is the current ubiquity (in the U.K. as well as U.S.) of TV police procedurals. The play creates an initial expectation of a thriller plot that Babe does not follow through on.

Casting and performances, in several cases, further hinder the auds’ entry into this complex fictional world. Sean is described in the play text as “professorial” and physically cleaner than the room and its usual denizens, but Chapman is scuzzily dressed and only late in the play reveals a more cultured, thoughtful nature. This may be an attempt to play against stereotypes of gay men as fastidious, but it proves confusing.

Marsh gives a surprisingly strained perf as Kelly, coming across initially as a parody of the emotionally constipated tough guy. Far more impressive are rising star Morgan, who sustains a remarkable level of twitchy intensity; and Johnson, who gives a strong perf as a good man hobbled by addictions and weaknesses.

Babe is attempting to depict a nation reeling with post-war traumatic stress syndrome while adjusting to the shifting sexual and race mores of the late ’60s. Happily, prod does not try to connect the action to the war in Iraq, but one is nevertheless left with the strong feeling that the play originally resonated in ways that are simply no longer as potent today.

A Prayer for My Daughter

Young Vic Theater, London; 420 seats; £22.50 $44 top

Production

A Young Vic presentation of a play in two acts by Thomas Babe. Directed by Dominic Hill.

Creative

Set and costumes, Giles Cadle; lighting, Bruno Poet; original music, Dan Jones. Opened Feb. 6, 2008. Reviewed Feb. 7. Running time: 2 HOURS.

Cast

With: Sean Chapman, Corey Johnson, Matthew Marsh, Colin Morgan.

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