Tina Howe's "Chasing Manet" almost makes you envy its mentally ill characters the good fortune of not knowing where they are.

Tina Howe’s “Chasing Manet” almost makes you envy its mentally ill characters the good fortune of not knowing where they are. Everyone else in the theater is aware they’re watching a bad example of the nursing home drama — a genre that, by definition, does not have much life left in it. With the exception of one interesting monologue, beautifully delivered by David Margulies, the play falls flat, cut off at the knees by embarrassingly sketchy characterizations and Michael Wilson’s tone-deaf direction.

The only role Howe seems interested in developing is Catherine Sargent (Jane Alexander, doing what she can), a character who will be familiar to fans of the writer. Catherine resembles an aged version of Mags Church, the young Boston painter protagonist of Howe’s “Painting Churches.” Catherine has been yanked out of her cozy Boston abode by milquetoasty son Royal (Jack Gilpin), an effete twerp given to reciting stanzas-long excerpts from Yeats poems.

Gilpin is uncomfortable in the role, and with good reason. He exists mostly to be yelled at by Catherine, who remains irate about her confinement at the Mt. Airy nursing home; and to ignore Vanessa Aspillaga, who plays the show’s embarrassingly indistinct Hispanic characters (really, who can blame him for getting her name wrong?).

Catherine the Grouch meets her match in new roommate Rennie Waltzer (Lynn Cohen), who has that rare humorous strain of dementia peculiar to plays about old people. Cute as a button and roughly as cognizant of her surroundings, Rennie becomes Catherine’s partner in crime, conspiring on the latter’s plan to bust them out of the nursing home.

It’s hard to imagine how they’re going to escape, partly because of the watchful nurses and partly because Wilson has staged the play so poorly on Tony Straiges’ oddly laid-out set that there’s no telling where the building begins and ends.

Howe has filled the play with arbitrary-seeming scenes about life in the facility that don’t so much miss the mark as call into question the mark’s existence. This may be Wilson’s fault, since no two scenes strike the same tone, but there is one lovely moment when everything appears to be working properly, suggesting that Howe actually was, however briefly, trying something ambitious.

During a group therapy session, a nurse named Charles (Rob Riley) confesses he agrees with his charges — he hates the nursing home, too. Henry (Margulies), who up to this point has only uttered slight variations on “I need help!,” surprises everyone by responding with a monologue about his former life as an archeologist before the ravages of age took the reins.

The script’s abrupt switch suggests that 71-year-old Howe didn’t want to give the world another play about wacky old people, although that’s mostly what she and Wilson give us. If you listen carefully, you can hear a better play pounding against the walls of “Chasing Manet” — a drama about the anticlimax that comes at the tedious end of an adventurous life.

Chasing Manet

59E59 Theaters; 199 seats; $60 top

Production

A Primary Stages presentation in association with Scott M. Delman, Alan D. Marks, Ted Snowdon and Jamie deRoy of a play in two acts by Tina Howe. Directed by Michael Wilson.

Creative

Set, Tony Straiges; costumes, David C. Woolard; lighting, Howell Binkley; original music and sound, John Gromada; wig and hair design, Mark Adam Rampmeyer; production stage manager, Susie Cordon. Opened April 9, 2009. Reviewed April 8. Running time: 1 HOUR, 50 MIN.

Cast

Catherine Sargent - Jane Alexander Rennie Waltzer - Lynn Cohen
With: Vanessa Aspillaga, Jack Gilpin, Julie Halston, David Margulies, Rob Riley.

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