Plays by Craig Lucas, especially such early gems as "Prelude to a Kiss" and "Reckless," tend to spin characters out of realistic situations into places where logic surrenders to impossible, irresistible thrill rides. In "Ode to Joy," the lovers also get thrown into wild, dangerous, unexpected places. Only this time, the cause is not imagination but pills and alcohol.

In a work Lucas says is semibiographical, people fall crazy in love with the fun and the conceptual leaps of new intimacy. As heads hit the table and erotic clinches fall into broken shards of glass, however, the disturbing question is "Do you feel this, or is it just the booze?"

Kathryn Erbe, with her fresh face and Alice in Wonderland daring, carries the three-character play as Adele, a painter of upsetting art. We first see her at an invisible canvas, shouting out in pain. We flash back seven years to her meet-cute with an engaging cardiac surgeon (Arliss Howard), then go back another eight years to her meeting with a formidable executive woman (Roxanna Hope) with heart trouble.

Lucas, who also directs, makes the turns sharp and the emotions real. But too many conversations seem like AA lectures. And even with snatches of the "Ode" from Beethoven's Ninth, the painful joy feels forced.


WHAT "Ode to Joy"

WHERE Cherry Lane Theatre, 38 Commerce St.

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INFO $66; 866-811-4111, rattlestick.org

BOTTOM LINE Fascinating characters turn into AA lecturers.