It's no secret that New York's leading nonprofit theaters need to nurture their relationships with playwrights. But couldn't those companies just take the writers out to cocktails and dinner rather than subject their poor subscribers to inferior work?

It’s no secret that New York’s leading nonprofit theaters need to nurture their relationships with playwrights. But couldn’t those companies just take the writers out to cocktails and dinner rather than subject their poor subscribers to inferior work? Playwrights Horizons does no one any favors — least of all the capable cast assembled — by producing Nicky Silver’s dyspeptic sitcom “Three Changes.” As pointless as it is thankless, this self-consciously warped reflection on the “connective tissue” of family is rarely troubled by a moment of truth.

Neil Patel’s typically sleek set depicts an expensive apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side that bespeaks the kind of anonymously tasteful statement only an unimaginative decorator can make. The living room sits on an elevated platform lit from beneath, leaving a downstage playing space for Silver’s frequent direct-address interludes but also suggesting a world of apparent comfort and well-being, precariously built on hollowness.

At the center of that joyless world are affable Laurel (Maura Tierney) and her complacent husband Nate (Dylan McDermott), a VP at Morgan Stanley having a clandestine affair with crass Clinique counter salesgirl Steffi (Aya Cash). The married couple’s semblance of contentment is ruptured by the arrival of Nate’s brother Hal (Scott Cohen), a formerly successful trash TV writer who squandered his earnings on drugs and hustlers, hit rock bottom and then found Jesus in rehab. Or so he says.

Hal settles in on the sofa-bed, acquires a laptop to start working on his novel, and promptly installs opportunistic 19-year-old rentboy Gordon (Brian J. Smith). To sway his hosts toward hospitality, Hal weaves a tragic past for Gordon as a homeless teenage runaway, which Laurel appears to buy despite clear evidence the kid has spent the past five years in a gym.

There’s a poor man’s Pinter scenario in play here as Silver corners quietly mopey Laurel and prickly, insecure Nate into accommodating the insidious intruders into their lives. Hal is manipulative and controlling, and Gordon (sucking on a lollipop in case we missed that he’s a male Lolita) is flat-out obnoxious. So we never understand why nobody points them to the door, and we’re never clued in as to the dark power Hal seems to hold over younger sibling Nate.

For too much of the play’s duration, there’s no sense of where it’s going or of why we should be interested in these abrasive people (even the relatively sweet Laurel talks way too much and wears thin).

Hal’s career burnout suggests early on there may be some familiar commentary on the artistic bankruptcy of media jobs. Later, the fixation of both Gordon and Nate on how they are portrayed in Hal’s book indicates that questions of self-image vs. public perception may be considered. But neither of these strands acquires substance.

Hints are scattered about Laurel’s feelings of incompleteness and the hole in her life after multiple miscarriages (she drinks, of course). So it’s no surprise that Nate remains hostile to the change in the status quo while Laurel embraces it as a means of filling the void. But when Nate loses his job and sinks into depression, machiavellian Hal turns the instability to his advantage.

Given that the real world is suddenly awash with former Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers staffers desultorily mailing out resumes in a gasping economic sector, it shouldn’t be hard to empathize with disenfranchised Nate as his cushy life crumbles around him. But Silver’s take on all the whiny characters is so condescending and superficial that despite some genuine pain in McDermott’s performance, Nate’s tragedy is merely a stepping stone toward the final scene’s unsatisfying and somewhat offensive twist.

Director Wilson Milam, so good with the crazed rat-tat-tat profanity of Martin McDonagh’s “The Lieutenant of Inishmore,” imposes a stilted delivery here on the overlapping, repetition-laden dialogue that heightens its chiseled artificiality and keeps the characters remote. That’s not remote enough, however, in the case of Gordon and Steffi, with Smith and Cash locked into apparent competition to see who can be louder, shriller and more irritating.

But even the softer approach of Tierney’s Laurel doesn’t make her any more flesh-and-blood. The actress communicates Laurel’s loss, loneliness and crushing sense of worthlessness more effectively in silence than in words, yet Silver sticks her with a superfluous monologue in which she spells out every nuance of her depression.

Quite possibly, the actors and director are powerless to carve real feeling out of this vapid attempt to breathe dramatic texture, suspense and subversiveness into standard-issue middle-class anxieties. Relationship inertia, desire for family stability, career dissatisfaction, lack of personal fulfillment, sibling envy, self-worth — these are all staples of contemporary life in which most audiences will find some echo of their own experience. However, Silver has managed to funnel these issues into a play that precludes emotional involvement.

The title of one of the playwright’s earlier works, “The Agony & the Agony,” would be a better fit here.

Three Changes

Playwrights Horizons; 198 seats; $65 top

Production

A Playwrights Horizons presentation of a play in two acts by Nicky Silver. Directed by Wilson Milam.

Creative

Set, Neil Patel; costumes, Theresa Squire; lighting, Ben Stanton; sound, Bart Fasbender; production stage manager, William H. Lang. Opened Sept. 16, 2008. Reviewed Sept. 11. Running time: 2 HOURS.

Cast

Laurel - Maura Tierney Nate - Dylan McDermott Hal - Scott Cohen Steffi - Aya Cash Gordon - Brian J. Smith
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