Linda Lavin crawls under the skin of an aging actress named Audrey Langham at a late rehearsal of "Medea" -- you know, the one about the mother who slaughters her children. She stands center stage, an icon both intimidating and ridiculous in a gold headdress and Greek-tragedy bling. First she forgets a line, then mutters, "I don't know what the [expletive] I'm doing," after which Lavin, the actress, lets us watch as the psychological dominoes tumble indelicately down the psyche of Audrey, the actress. Her dressing room is too hot, her shoes are killing her, now she's dizzy.
And she walks -- no, stalks -- off the stage, thus ending the opening scene of Nicky Silver's "Too Much Sun" and daring, really daring us not to follow her on this journey of self-destruction and, just maybe, self-awareness.
I recount those first delicious moments to share the disappointment when our majestically unraveling Audrey flees to the summer home at the Cape of her estranged daughter (Jennifer Westfeldt) and her dissatisfied husband (Ken Barnett). What we also reluctantly learn is that none of the characters who accumulate at the house deserve the woman we fell so hard for in that first brief scene.
In fact, it hurts to report that the play doesn't know what to do with Audrey either. Silver, whose dark and witty screwball tragicomic family horror stories have been cheerfully appalling us at the Vineyard Theatre for two decades, has hit a wall with this one.
This is especially sad because, two years ago, the playwright and Lavin found they shared a hyper-articulate creative muse together in "The Lyons," which transferred to Broadway. Clearly, Lavin's special voice -- which manages to be grating and comforting at the same time -- is happy rattling around the twists in his interesting head. Even as "Too Much Sun" flops aimlessly around Lavin, her character undercuts all the self-involved boring people with something like charm.
Many of Silver's favorite kinds of characters are here, but with little of their customary originality or honesty. Nor has director Mark Brokaw ("The Lyons") been able to reconcile Silver's outrageous comic voice with his new appetite for melodramatic cliche. The tone changes so often that it's hard to know which tone is being betrayed.
WHAT "Too Much Sun"
WHERE Vineyard Theatre, 108 E. 15th St.
INFO $80; 212-353-0303, vineyardtheatre.org
BOTTOM LINE Fascinating Linda Lavin, but vacillating play.