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Eden Lane

Tom Donaghy's dialogue in "Eden Lane" has a nervous, teasing sound. The problem with his play is the slender content beneath the surface cleverness. Des McAnuff and a proficient cast provide moments of fine entertainment, but there's such a strenuous effort to avoid conventional storytelling and plot that our emotions are never fully engaged.

Tom Donaghy’s dialogue in “Eden Lane” has a nervous, teasing sound. Donaghy is gifted at creating words that reflect the erratic, zigzagging thought patterns of people trying to make sense of their lives, and his halting, overlapping sentences have an original rhythm. The problem with his play, having its world premiere at La Jolla Playhouse, is the slender content beneath the surface cleverness. Director Des McAnuff and a uniformly proficient cast provide moments of fine entertainment, but there’s such a strenuous effort to avoid on-the-nose, conventional storytelling and plot that our emotions are never fully engaged.

The concept is promising. May (Roxanne Hart), a former actress, moves from a small New York apartment to an opulent country home with wealthy second husband Philip (Francois Giroday), rebellious daughter Ruby (Sarah Avery) and young gay friend Timothy (Peter Paige). Attempts to escape post-9/11 blues and find a pastoral paradise are thwarted when May asks interior designer Alberta (Rachel Jacobs) to put a large window in her bedroom wall and Alberta adamantly refuses. May backs off, but resentment lingers. Eileen Marie (Kate McGregor-Stewart), next-door neighbor and the designer’s former client, warns her the stubborn Alberta is trouble and should be replaced.

Seemingly minor conflicts often escalate into huge disasters, and we wait for this central theme to erupt and shatter everyone’s existence, or at least have a direct, forceful bearing on family relationships. Unfortunately, it dips in and out, submerged in other storylines. The 22-year-old Ruby becomes pregnant with twins by a married 50-something doctor. Timothy wrestles with a vaguely defined conflict that provokes him into crying out, “I don’t want to be a supporting player. I’m just a walk-on,” and Philip over-imbibes and half-responds to Alberta’s oblique flirtatiousness. Whenever a confrontation threatens to develop, characters either storm out the front door or race up the stairs, and potentially absorbing sequences taper off without attaining maximum impact.

The story’s slimness is emphasized by John Arnone’s magnificent country-home set, first shown with rolled-up rug and strewn boxes, then transformed with a circular wall, lit from within, spotlighting bookcases and art pieces. Howard Binkley’s lighting is endlessly inventive, while composer Michael Roth supplies ideal, understated music.

What gives the production soul is Giroday’s perf as Philip. Aided by McAnuff’s witty staging, Giroday does a series of remarkably funny riffs on making martinis, his way of solving or ducking situations. He hilariously thrusts out his stomach to indicate middle age, and punctuates each scene with looks and gestures that amount to a delightful one-man show. Best of all, he gets great mileage from one of Donaghy’s sharpest lines, “Let’s just sit and get fat and drunk and old.”

Paige, by sheer presence, surmounts an indecipherable part and involves us in Timothy’s travails, though we never understand where Timothy came from, what he wants or why he’s living with this family.

Ruby’s snide, spiteful tirades against everyone are one-dimensional, even given the pressure of an endangered pregnancy, and script’s psychological explanation — a neglectful father — doesn’t justify such viciousness.

Hart has a sweetly genuine charm as the window-deprived May, but her final faceoff with the stubborn designer is limp and pat. Ultimately, the missing window is an emotional one that would have enabled us to see clearly into the minds and hearts of the characters.

Eden Lane

La Jolla Playhouse, Mandell Weiss Forum; 492 seats; $49 top

  • Production: A La Jolla Playhouse presentation of a play in two acts by Tom Donaghy. Directed by Des McAnuff.
  • Crew: Sets, John Arnone; costumes, David C. Woolard; lighting, Howell Binkley; sound, Robbin E. Broad; stage manager, Mark Tynan. Opened, reviewed Aug. 17, 2003; runs through Sept. 14. Running time: 2 HOURS, 5 MIN.
  • Cast: May - Roxanne Hart Philip - Francois Giroday Alberta - Rachel Jacobs Timothy - Peter Paige Ruby - Sarah Avery Eileen Marie - Kate McGregor-Stewart