On the brink of an era of change, a glamorous woman visits a dwindling estate, thereby raising hopes of a financial lifeline. Sound familiar? Throw in a largely unspoken love, resentment among long-serving staff, even a shot being fired that misses and what have you got? “The Cherry Orchard” meets “Uncle Vanya.” Although Frank McGuinness’ new play, “Greta Garbo Came to Donegal,” makes no reference to Chekhov, he’s pouring old wine into new bottles. The result is not the playwright’s finest vintage.

The play’s springboard was the discovery that in 1967, 26 years after her final Hollywood film, the eponymous film star really did visit a house in out-of-the-way Donegal on Ireland’s border line. Luckily for McGuinness, little is known about her stay, thus freeing him from the shackles of fact-heavy biodrama. Instead, he fashions a fiction of the ultimate outsider shedding light upon familial and political divides stirring beneath the surface.

Garbo (Caroline Lagerfelt) has been invited by Sir Matthew (Daniel Gerroll), an ex-army, upper-class Englishman who is now a painter. Conjuring shades of E.M. Forster’s “Maurice,” he lives in his country pile with his handsome, working-class boxer-turned-gardener, Harry (Tom McKay). The house was sold to him by the Hennessy family. Due to severely straitened circumstances, they have now returned to work for Matthew, with all the strains that arrangement suggests.

Ruling the roost, however, is housekeeper Paulie (staunch but sensitive Michelle Fairley) alongside her wayward brother, his permanently dissatisfied wife and their bright daughter, Colette (Lisa Diveney), who, exam results permitting, is poised to go to Dublin to study to become a doctor.

I’m a great gloomy Swede,” announces Lagerfelt’s deftly assured Garbo, the play’s most successful creation. Her observation is only partly true. McGuinness peppers her dialogue with aphoristic utterances of clear-eyed wisdom, but also gives her a bone-dry sense of humor. In her own way, she’s as blunt as McKay’s Harry, who makes his first entrance entirely naked. Dressed in Robert Jones’ well-cut, earth-toned ’60s pantsuits, Lagerfelt wittily mixes languor and asperity.

As McGuinness cannot resist saying, Garbo laughs. More troublingly, what the character doesn’t do until too late in the proceedings, is act upon that which she — and the audience — sees. While she announces herself to be “a bachelor,” her fondness for long-suffering Paulie is immediately evident. But McGuinness is so intent upon showing Paulie’s generation to be mired in stasis that the relationship is never allowed to take off.

A stronger production might have galvanized proceedings, but Nicolas Kent’s imprecise direction, complete with old-fashioned blackouts, slows things down, with insufficient physicality between the actors. Even in a paint-besmirched smock, it’s hard to believe Gerroll’s Matthew is a painter, let alone one enmeshed in a complex quasi-closeted relationship with his gardener.

Slightly stung by being asked what happened to her, Paulie retorts, “Nothing happened.” That’s the intended tragedy of her unlived life, beautifully revealed by Fairley, who wrings all possible emotion from her stoic disappointment. But it’s also the problem with the play. Characters are filled out but left largely in search of drama with which to knit them together.

Chekhov showed that inertia can be a play’s governing idea, but it needs developing action and forward momentum within to make it dramatic. Despite confrontations in the (too many) final scenes, McGuinness’ play is sadly short on tension.

Greta Garbo Came to Donegal

Tricycle Theater, London; 235 seats; £20 $32 top

  • Production: A Tricycle Theater presentation of a play in two acts by Frank McGuinness. Directed by Nicolas Kent.
  • Crew: Sets and costumes, Robert Jones; lighting, Matthew Eagland; sound, Tom Lishman; production stage manager, Lizzie Chapman. Opened, reviewed Jan. 11, 2010. Running time: 2 HOURS, 40 MIN.
  • Cast: Paulie Hennessy - Michelle Fairley Sylvia Hennessy - Angeline Ball Colette Hennessy - Lisa Diveney Greta Garbo - Caroline Lagerfelt Harry Caulfield - Tom McKay Matthew Dover - Daniel Gerroll James Hennessy - Owen McDonnell