Frank Wood (center) and company in The Wax(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Frank Wood (center) and company in The Wax
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
When you open the Playbill for Kathleen Tolan's The Wax at Playwrights Horizons, you'll notice that the cast of nine includes at least five actors whose individual presence in a play would instantly draw attention from the serious theatergoing public. In no small measure, this wealth of talent keeps The Wax from melting despite its sometime clumsy plotting and occasional self-conscious intellectualism. This ambitious attempt to meld social/cultural satire with bedroom farce has a certain theatrical daring. It also has moments of ripping satire and sharp humor, though perhaps not enough to satisfy the expectations established by such a stellar company.

Performed in real time, the play is set in a hotel room in New England, where a group of old friends has reunited for a wedding. First we meet an attractive woman named Kate (Karen Young), apparently trapped in a loveless marriage. Though she complains about the lack of attention she's receiving from her husband, Christopher (Frank Wood), Kate is getting plenty of attention from her longtime female friend Angie (Mary Testa). Panting for a lesbian fling, Angie flirts and kisses her almost-willing gal pal--but this is farce, so there is a knock on the door at a pivotal moment.

With the regularity of a metronome, those knocks will continue throughout the play, interrupting one potential set of lovers after another. Some hide under the bed, some in the closet, others in the bathroom. These couplings are supposed to build to a comic crescendo, but Tolan has more on her mind than laughs. Whenever her characters are in bed, they banter about music, art, etc., spinning an air of cultural sophistication. Kate is a poet, her husband is a mathematician, and their friends include a composer turned successful novelist (played by Robert Dorfman), his bitter ex-wife (played by Laura Esterman), and his new gay lover, a critic (played by David Greenspan). Tolan tries to cheerfully pierce the intellectual armor of these cultural elite to reveal the hungry, desperate people underneath.

On the one hand, if the common thread among most of these characters is their ineffable unhappiness, it stands to reason that this will put a considerable damper on the farcical elements of the comedy. On the other hand, the ennui of these folks is at the very heart of the play's satire. The Wax must walk a tightrope of tone in order to make these two antithetical elements work, and the cast seems up to the task, but Brian Kulick's direction is too labored to keep the farce light and breezy. Instead of deft satiric strokes that strike like the point of a foil, the serious humor here slashes like a broadsword and hacks away at the play's sense of fun.

Karen Young is simply not a comedic actress, but she does well in returning the serves sent her way by others. Frank Wood, the award-winning actor so long associated with the hit show Side Man, displays his trademark quirky aloofness to amusing effect. Dry, biting, and knowingly indirect, he is a pleasure to watch. Equally amusing, but for the opposite reason, David Greenspan scores because he is so intensely direct.

One actor who particularly thrives here is Robert Dorfman; his composer-turned-novelist is among the play's most textured roles. Mary Testa's sexed-up Angie captures the exuberance of the farce, but that's all her character is called upon to do. Gareth Saxe gives a delightfully offbeat performance as a local stud, the male counterpart to Testa's role.

Of the play's major actors, only Laura Esterman as the ex-wife fails to give her character an interesting turn. Mary Schultz brings dignity to the smaller role of a woman who is rather painfully humiliated. And Lola Pashalinski stoutly plays the person who does the titular waxing (of Karen Young), an exercise that metaphorically ties up Tolan's serious intentions but pulls the comedy out of the play by its roots.