Margaret Colin and Ally Sheedy in Triptych(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
Margaret Colin and Ally Sheedy in Triptych
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
As Edna O'Brien's novels, short stories, and plays have accumulated until they form a list as long as your arm, her view of love has become increasingly and harshly articulated. She finds love and its consequences to be complex, tangled, wounding, maddening to the brink of lunacy. In Triptych, given its world premiere in San Francisco last year and now unwrapped on this coast, she also presents love and its woes as tedious. O, the angst! The wasted energy! The estrangement between sisters arising from competition over something as trivial as a man.

In Triptych, which could as easily have been called Cryptic, three women involved with the same unseen gentleman (?) called Henry vie for his attention. At one point, whirling around in a tempest of some sort, they look like the three witches anticipating Macbeth's arrival. They might as well be chanting, "Double, double, toil and trouble." And throughout O'Brien's loose plot, they're echoes of the ladies who are mired in jungle red over the never-seen Stephen Haines in Clare Booth Luce's The Women.

The contemporary harpies are Henry's wife, Pauline (Margaret Colin); his daughter, Brandy (Carrie Specksgoor); and his mistress, Melissa (Ally Sheedy). The play begins when housewife Pauline arrives unannounced in actress Melissa's dressing room before a New York performance of The Duchess of Malfi. (How's that literary reference for hints at the damned plight of women?) When Pauline departs so that Melissa can get to the stage before the curtain goes up, rumbling suddenly begins in the dressing room and a bouquet of flowers ominously drops its petals. After a few seconds of this, the entire vase mysteriously plunges to the floor -- another sign of witches at play.

Before long, Pauline is stalking Melissa. Not necessarily in the following order, Pauline surprises Melissa in the park, invites her to dinner for a friendly ambush, and even returns to the dressing room, where she puts the moves on the unprepared thespian. After giving in to a brief smooch, Melissa gets to say, as melodramatically as a Jacobean heroine: "I was unfaithful to him with his own wife." (At the performance I attended, no one laughed at this, which proves how polite New York City audiences can be.) Brandy also visits Melissa's dressing room without first sending her calling card. Probably the weirdest assault that Pauline makes is jumping on stage when Melissa is emoting as Rosalind in As You Like It. (Melissa doesn't react noticeably, nor does a stage manager suddenly appear, which is what would likely happen in such a situation.) Brandy, leaping from the audience, drags her spitting mother away.

Though there's no literal hair-pulling in O'Brien's play, the three women continue to get into each other's hair. In keeping with typical mother-adolescent daughter strife, Pauline and Brandy manifest approach-avoidance behavior. (Early on, revealing that she hasn't escaped Electra complex throes, Brandy talks about "People looking at [my father and me] as if we were lovers. Yes, lovers.") When O'Brien eventually figures it's time to call a halt to her three-way tug-of-war, she contrives another of those destructive storms. It ends with -- well, it's probably unfair to divulge the ending, ludicrous as it is.

O'Brien, who lives in England but is steeped in Irish lore, is a masterful writer. Since it's Nobel Prize time, it may not be far-fetched to guess that her name has come up around the Stockholm judges' table at least once when the next literature citation has been discussed. Growing up, O'Brien seems to have drawn deep and profound inspiration nutrients from the soil. There's nothing superficial about her insights and intuitions; she's steeped in an appreciation of myth and sees how it darkly infuses everyday life. That's got to be the explanation for the inclusion in Triptych of elements commandeered from literary history -- storms, allusions to The Duchess of Malfi, comments like "Does he know what poisons you're dipped in" that are redolent of classic dramas. There are times, however, when stressing the universal in the present only registers as pretentious. Much of Triptych is so arch that the play could support a late Renaissance cathedral.

That unfortunate construction leaves director David Jones and cast high and dry, while set designer Michael McGarty, costume designer Jane Greenwood, lighting designer David Weiner, and sound designer Scott Myers do their professional best. Maybe other actors would have made something of the lines, but Colin and Sheedy have proved in the past that they're first-rate performers, so it's likely that what they've had to work with is the opposite of an actor-proof text: It's actor-resistant. Colin delivers the blunt language that O'Brien has given her with conviction, but she can't make a stick figure full-bodied and real. Sheedy, burdened a few months ago with an unplayable part in The Triple Happiness, has drawn another short straw; this role calls for an English accent that she doesn't conquer. Newcomer Specksgoor acquits herself well enough to pique interest in how she might shine in a better piece.

There is a light-hearted moment in Triptych: Pauline asks Melissa what made her fall for Henry. Melissa says it was his shoes, and the women exchange knowing smiles. It's too bad that Edna O'Brien couldn't get more of this sort of knowingness into Triptych and more of the phony histrionics out of it.