The best parts of Stephen Belber’s “Fault Lines” are enjoyed with your lips clamped tightly shut around that guilty snicker that will probably get out, egged on by the excellent Dominic Fumusa as a ridiculous sex fiend and Josh Lucas as his supercilious straight man. But the locker room humor is just gateway manliness that leads to harder stuff: friendship, loyalty and several very unfunny betrayals. It’s difficult not to resent a comedy for self-destructing in the name of surprise, but the insights Belber finds amid the backstabbing are smart enough — barely — to justify the meltdown.Jim hawks eco-friendly humus toilets, which is Belber’s little way of telling us the character is full of well-meaning crap. He’s good enough at both things — bullshitting and toilet sales — to land a few choice perks that alleviate his loneliness (his mom has recently died), like a guest lecture at a university where he can meet, pick up and discard a ripe co-ed or two before heading home. This seems callous because it is callous. Belber gets a couple of choice jokes out of Jim’s shenanigans, but his friend Bill (Lucas) isn’t having any of it. Dead mom or no dead mom, Bill can only listen to Jim’s excuses for so long before asking, “Does your ass hurt when you talk this way?” The fault lines of the title run through the relationship between these two men, and it takes an objective outsider to expose them, or so the theory goes. That outsider is Joe (Noah Emmerich, who has a great goofy-yet-intimidating shtick here), a harmless-seeming dweeb who shuffles into the bar where they hang out and cranks up an annoying tune on the jukebox. Soon, he’s invading Bill and Jim’s space like a Panzer tank, asking about prostate problems and marital distress, which makes Jim snicker and Bill seethe. Joe changes the entire play with one short move, something that’s neither integral to the plot nor particularly jarring, but totally subversive to the tone: he steps into the doorway when Bill tries to leave. Emmerich is a big guy, noticeably bigger than either Lucas or Fumusa, and when he suggests the possibility of physical confrontation, nothing is quite as funny. Things are about to break, Belber is telling us, and the way they’ll break has been determined by years of friendship. And that, frankly, is a little highfalutin for a four-hander that takes place in 85 minutes in the back room of a bar between aggressively normal people. After Joe raises the stakes, we get at least three surprise plot twists and two lengthy monologues that tell us exactly how the characters feel, and that’s it for the play. Not everything has to be “Uncle Vanya,” of course, but Belber seems less interested in his characters than in what hoops they can jump through, so there’s a basic lack of depth to these people that only a very good cast and a strong directorial hand can amend. Thankfully, this production has both. Director David Schwimmer gets a lot of warmth from Lucas and Fumusa, and even Emmerich seems well-meaning in an ursine kind of way. Jennifer Mudge as Bill’s wife, Jess, is less interesting, but that’s more Belber’s fault than hers. Schwimmer and the cast present the best versions of these people to us, and that keeps us caring even after the play’s essential humor goes AWOL. Belber (“Tape,” “Match”) is obviously talented at structure and style. And the play’s thesis — friendship is a fragile thing that vanishes when it’s examined too closely — is so interesting it’s hard not to simply excuse the shortcomings and call it good enough. But it isn’t quite. There’s more and better to come on this subject, possibly from the same playwright.
Cherry Lane Theater; 179 seats; $60 top
A Naked Angels presentation of a play in one act by Stephen Belber. Directed by David Schwimmer.
Set, Cameron Anderson; costumes, Mattie Ulrich; lighting, Jason Lyons; sound, Bart Fasbender; production stage manager, Jon Goldman. Opened Sept. 30, 2008. Reviewed Sept. 29. Running time: 1 HOUR, 25 MIN.
Joe - Noah Emmerich Jim - Dominic Fumusa Bill - Josh Lucas Jess - Jennifer Mudge