With premieres of three new plays and a starry Broadway revival of “Three Days of Rain” already under his belt in the past year, nobody could accuse Richard Greenberg of being underemployed. But on the strength of “The House in Town,” the playwright might be advised to decrease his productivity and channel his energies into more fully realized works. While it’s arguably preferable to the hollow mirth of “A Naked Girl on the Appian Way,” the more somber new play is frustrating and unfocused — a rambling bundle of urbane sophistication and melancholy philosophical musings that never quite comes together.
Like Greenberg’s “The Violet Hour,” the play is set in New York in the early 20th century — in this case, at the start of 1929 — and similarly welds a contemporary perspective to a period setting.
The writer broaches hot-button issues ranging from anti-Semitism to homophobia, terrorism to abortion, underscoring his critique of privilege, wealth and big business by citing G.K. Chesterton. But these points ultimately become weightless, conceding the thematic spotlight to a muddled and muddy portrait of a marriage.
The couple in question is department store owner Sam Hammer (Mark Harelik) and his sweetly eccentric wife, Amy (Jessica Hecht), who live in a swanky Manhattan townhouse on the stretch of 23rd Street then known as Millionaire’s Row. Foreshadowing the collapse of Wall Street and the darker days ahead, the Hammers’ view is about to be obstructed by London Terrace, a massive apartment block going up across the street.
Greenberg’s key concern seems to be that solid, orderly appearances often mask corrosive hidden depths, revealed in the Hammers’ marriage and in London Terrace. A castlelike fortress spanning an entire city block, the building is seen by the characters as squalid — full of cozy pieds-a-terre where rich businessmen can “stash their doxies.”
The play opens as a New Year’s Eve celebration is winding down at the Hammers’ house. In addition to their closest friends, Con Eliot (Armand Schultz), a doctor and his caustic wife, Jean (Becky Ann Baker), the party is attended by Christopher (Dan Bittner), an awkward youth clearly uncomfortable in these surroundings. “As each evening ends, a little grief,” Sam reflects cryptically after the guests depart.
Christopher’s mother was a senior employee at Sam’s store, hit by a taxi while leaving work one night. The boy now works there while completing high school. He’s clearly uneasy with Sam’s solicitous attentions, but he needs the job.
A Saratoga WASP, Amy regards her Jewish husband as an exotic enigma. Despite what appears to be the onset of menopause and their failure to have children in the past, she has reintroduced sex into the marriage after a long time with the express purpose of conceiving. Believing she’s pregnant, Amy goes to Con to be examined, but the doctor attempts to shield her from the truth about her condition.
Greenberg diligently teases out red-herring scenarios, particularly concerning Sam’s interest in Christopher, before revealing the underlying truths. Amy’s dialogue in the final scene has a certain sting as she bitterly asserts herself after a lifetime of acquiescence and deferring to men’s power. But it feels like a closing speech in search of a play — up to that point, the writer too often makes distracting detours when he should be laying concrete dramatic foundations.
Director Doug Hughes has given the production a surface finesse, and the characters’ moneyed world is stylishly rendered in John Lee Beatty’s sets, Catherine Zuber’s costumes and Brian MacDevitt’s lighting. But despite Greenberg’s witty dialogue, the visual elegance is not matched by clarity of purpose in the writing, giving the nagging feeling of cleverness for its own sake. There’s no real sense of what the play is about.
Hecht is a charismatic stage actor with a refined technique, but she’s basically wrong for the part, which calls for a dreamy Mia Farrow type, her feet not quite firmly rooted in reality. Amy’s lyrical flights of rumination about everything from snow to anarchy to Italian market produce have an affected quality that makes her emotions seem remote.
Harelik conveys complexity, and Baker brings bite to some of the script’s better lines, but the play has a ponderous, artificial feel that prevents the characters from taking shape.