Sharr White writes so knowingly about complicated women that one might be forgiven for assuming, as I once did, that he is a woman playwright.
Earlier this year, Laurie Metcalf toppled magnificently into the downward spiral of a brilliant neurological researcher in "The Other Place." Now
"The Snow Geese" -- which, like White's earlier play, is coproduced by MCC Theater and the Manhattan Theatre Club at the latter's Friedman on Broadway -- imagines three more women characters with psychological twists and folds of unusual richness and depth.
So it isn't hard to understand why Mary-Louise Parker was drawn to Elizabeth Gaesling, the glamorous and delusional recent widow of a lively eccentric from a privileged Syracuse family. She and her two grown sons, her sister and her brother-in-law and a mysterious new Ukrainian maid are gathered for opening day of the hunting season in their gorgeous, woodsy lodge (designed by John Lee Beatty) in upstate New York. It is 1917 and not quite a safe distance from the Great War, which means that mood swings and reversals of fortune are both personal and global.
How sad, then, that the play is such a muddle. It's an interesting neo-Chekhovian muddle, mind you, and I'm not a bit sorry to have shared the time with White, 43, a late-blooming playwright whose corporate job has been supporting his family in their Hudson Valley home.
Given the rich situation and director Daniel Sullivan's darkly luscious production, however, the disappointments hurt.
Parker, whose extensive theater career includes her Tony-winning performance in Sullivan's staging of "Proof," makes a fascinating, poignant wraith -- a lost soul in silky black mourning gowns (by Jane Greenwood), just beginning to realize how much is lost. But her voice is sometimes hard to hear, especially in the wordy exposition when everyone in the family is babbling at the same time about many important plot points. Victoria Clark is exquisitely down to earth as the pious sister, while Danny Burstein has touching fury as the German-born doctor enduring wartime xenophobia.
Sibling and class rivalry burn between the pampered first son (Evan Jonigkeit) and his brother (Brian Cross), left behind to entangle financial disasters. Most intriguing, perhaps, is the maid (Jessica Love), who knows the brutality that these people, with their carefree hunting of what someone calls "the birds and the bunnies," are yet to understand. Too bad the play lets them all down.
WHAT "The Snow Geese"
WHERE Friedman Theatre, 261 W. 47th St.
INFO $67-$125; 212-239-6200; manhattantheatreclub.com
BOTTOM LINE Disappointing muddle of a play, alas, but fascinating potential.