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One Shoe Off

Sam Shepard meets Thomas Berger in Tina Howe's new comedy, an offbeat, sometimes ferociously funny collision of two married couples and a long-absent friend set around an intimate dinner party.

Leonard ... Jeffrey DeMunn Dinah ... Mary Beth Hurt Clio ... Jennifer Tilly Tate ... Daniel Gerroll Parker ... Brian Kerwin

Sam Shepard meets Thomas Berger in Tina Howe’s new comedy, an offbeat, sometimes ferociously funny collision of two married couples and a long-absent friend set around an intimate dinner party.

The play’s over-the-top tone is established immediately in the curtainless Anspacher Theater by Heidi Landesman’s spectacular set, a cutaway view of a decrepit Greek-revival mansion overtaken by nature.

A mean wind howls through the eaves, a riot of vines and foliage threatens the downstairs parlor and upstairs bedroom, and armloads full of carrots and squash have overtaken the closets and other hidden spaces.

The lord and lady of this unmannered manor are Leonard (Jeffrey DeMunn), an actor who hasn’t worked in years, and Dinah (Mary Beth Hurt), a successful costume designer.

This is a case in which it’s not the house that’s haunted, but the inhabitants — Leonard by his past successes as a classical actor, Dinah by Parker (Brian Kerwin), the director who abandoned them both for B-movies and who is expected at dinner after an absence of six years.

But the first to arrive at the party are the new neighbors, Tate (Daniel Gerroll), an editor of books for children, and his wife Clio (Jennifer Tilly), a slinky, Armani-gowned ingenue whom Parker, when he finally does arrive, gloms onto with unabashed lechery.

The profusion of veggies recalls the Shepard of “Curse of the Starving Class” and “Buried Child.” But the dramatic set-up echoes Berger’s “The Good Neighbors” and so does Howe’s genre-parody style.

Dialogue and performances are exaggerated, in a riff on a familiar theme, the dining-room play that dissolves in an emotive crossfire of accusation, revelation and reconciliation.

But neither Howe nor director Carole Rothman ever really lets the stops out, the result being a constipated evening except for a few wonderful moments when the actors are free to let loose.

Those belong primarily to Hurt, when she allows Dinah’s anger and frustration to snarl through the mask of a woman who admits early on that “I don’t know who I am — it’s tragic”; and Gerroll’s Tate, whose pompousness is tempered by the fractured Mother Goose rhymes that tumble from his mouth like a demented nervous tic.

Otherwise, “One Shoe Off” is tough to love.

An ensemble of fine actors works overly hard on a joke the audience is never let in on, and the play ultimately left this reviewer cold (along with a good number of others, who voted with their feet at intermission).

Not so, however, Richard Nelson’s warm lighting and Susan Hilferty’s witty costumes.

One Shoe Off

(Joseph Papp Public Theater/Anspacher Theater, N.Y.; $ 35 top; 275 seats)

Production: A Second Stage Theater presentation of a play in two acts by Tina Howe. Directed by Carole Rothman.

Creative: Set, Heidi Landesman; costumes, Susan Hilferty; lighting, Richard Nelson; sound, Mark Bennett; hair, Antonio Soddu; associate producer, Carol Fishman; artistic director, Rothman; producing director, Suzanne Schwartz Davidson. Opened April 15, 1993; reviewed April 12.

Cast: Leonard ... Jeffrey DeMunn Dinah ... Mary Beth Hurt Clio ... Jennifer Tilly Tate ... Daniel Gerroll Parker ... Brian Kerwin

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