Kathleen Chalfant and John Cunningham in Tina Howe's "Painting Churches"...

Kathleen Chalfant and John Cunningham in Tina Howe's "Painting Churches" presented by the Keen Company at the Clurman Theatre in Manhattan. Credit: Carol Rosegg

Don't let the genteel setting -- the classic window outlines and gracious, disembodied bookcase -- fool you. Despite the apparent civility in this old-money house on Beacon Hill, chaos -- both trivial and profound -- runs deeply amok in "Painting Churches."

Tina Howe's tragicomedy, a Pulitzer finalist in 1983, explores the eccentric and heart-aching story of Fanny and Gardner Church, no longer young, no longer high-functioning, as they shrink and pack up for a move to a small place on Cape Cod.

Gardner, a prizewinning poet who taught "Gray's Elegy" to his parrot, is losing more than his inspiration. Fanny, who loves Gardner and crazy hats from thrift shops, is trying to hold things together until no one can anymore.

Oh, yes, there is also Mags, their daughter, a successful but insecure New York artist, who arrives at this hectic moment to have her self-involved parents sit still for a portrait. In 1983, Mags was played by Elizabeth McGovern, who held her own against the wild brilliance of Marian Seldes as her mother.

In the play's first New York revival, however, Kate Turnbull's Mags seems a petty and self-pitying baby compared to her parents. The imbalance may come from Carl Forsman's staging for his Keen Company. Or perhaps the deterioration of smart old people seems more poignant as so many more of us know so many more of them.

Whichever, this poor Mags doesn't have a chance against the force of parents portrayed with the magisterial knowing of Kathleen Chalfant and John Cunningham. At first, Chalfant, with her gravity and intelligence, doesn't seem a natural ditherer or frivolous show-off who bellows "yoo-hoo" to loved ones in adjoining rooms.

So the first act, meant to establish the deterioration of the couple's situation with a light, foolish touch, feels more forced than I remember from the original. But in the bone-shivery second act, the setup closes in over the long-married intimates with the inexorable killer-squeeze of a carnivorous flower.

Howe's appalling and precise digs around the absurdities of graciousness are not seen nearly enough these days. What she describes as her fascination with "the dailiness of women's lives, but on an operatic scale" has been missed.

WHAT "Painting Churches"

WHERE Clurman Theatre, 410 W. 42nd St.

INFO $59.75; 212-239-6200; telecharge.com

BOTTOM LINE The chaos of aging, told with absurdity and heart

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