David Strathairn and Maryann Plunkettin Rodney's Wife(Photo © Joan Marcus)
David Strathairn and Maryann Plunkett
in Rodney's Wife
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
The family and friends in Rodney's Wife, Richard Nelson's latest drama, are on edge -- so much so that they're practically on the verge of breakdowns. Primed to take umbrage at whatever's said, they exclaim things like "What does that mean?" and "I didn't mean it that way!" They're constantly attempting to assure themselves and each other that they haven't just been insulted or been insulting, but such assurance never quite comes. These people are so fragile that an action as simple as drawing someone's bath becomes a source of contention. "Run his bath, Eva," one of them says in a snit. "Have fun!"

The six nervous wrecks are spending their last night in a rented villa just outside Rome. It's 1962, and the eponymous Rodney (David Strathairn) is acting in a spaghetti western for lack of better opportunities. Wife Fay (Haviland Morris) is no longer thesping because, a stage beauty in her day, she might provide competition that Rodney doesn't want. (Rodney, Fay, and the rest are Americans abroad. Nelson is so fascinated by that subject that he titled an earlier play Some Americans Abroad. This one could be called Some More Americans Abroad.)

Because idleness puts the jittery Fay more out of sorts than the rest of the cats-on-a-hot-tin-roof group, she all but collapses when she learns that stepdaughter Lee (Jessica Chastain) is engaged to Ted (Jesse Pennington), an aspiring writer. Ted's very existence is news to Fay, who can't figure out why she hasn't been informed of his proposal. Rodney's sister Eva (Maryann Plunkett) has heard the seemingly cheery bulletin but, though she'd like to be a conciliatory household force, isn't much help in the charged circumstances. Poor Fay recently lost her husband (Rodney's manager) and is only just recovering. Rodney's new manager, Henry (John Rothman) is removed from the fray but has his own worry: His wife, who's usually home when he calls, isn't. Complicating Henry's day is what to do about the role that Rodney's been offered in L.A., which would require his abandonment of the Rome shoot.

Nervousness in plays of this sort inevitably indicates shameful family secrets, and Nelson doesn't disappoint in this regard -- although the play itself is a sizable disappointment after successes like Goodnight Children Everywhere and Madame Melville. Fay, Rodney, Lee, and Eva are hiding something from the others and from themselves. The hush-hush information that Fay and Lee share is the major shocker -- or is intended to be, though plot-savvy observers will figure it out. (I didn't and was annoyed with myself, since Nelson drops clues as if they were bricks.) Rodney's unspoken concerns about his marriage and sister Eva's barely repressed feelings for her sibling are also geared to jolt patrons into shaking their heads over the kinds of disturbances that are unhappily commonplace in middle-class households as depicted by post-Ibsen dramatists.

Nelson's major fumble may be due in large part to his insistence on directing his own play. Few playwright-directors are up to the challenge -- sure, Noël Coward was able to pull it off, and Woody Allen does most of the time. (There are those who declare that he's come a cropper with A Second Hand Memory.) But a couple of chores that directors are supposed to handle aren't ably done by Nelson. First of all, a director is expected to present the playwright's vision, which often leads to serving as a dramaturge -- but Nelson, obviously satisfied with his scripting, hasn't toned down the well-nigh hilarious angst that runs through his piece like an interstate highway.

Haviland Morris and Jessica Chastainin Rodney's Wife(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Haviland Morris and Jessica Chastain
in Rodney's Wife
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Secondly, a director is supposed to orchestrate the acting so that it's all of a piece without calling attention to itself. Because Nelson hasn't noticed the excessive amount of upset that he's written, he hasn't determined a way for his ensemble to minimize it. Performing on the not-very-Italian-looking set that Susan Hilferty has provided but in the right-seeming wardrobe that the designer has chosen, the cast may even have been prodded by Nelson to emphasize restiveness. This is an unfortunate situation for David Strathairn, Haviland Morris, Maryann Plunkett, and Jessica Chastain; they each have occasional moments when they register real behavior, but too often they're virtually caricatures. (Jesse Pennington and John Rothman, who's actually quite good, are spared much of the agitation in their lines.) Perhaps had Nelson told his troupe to take it up a notch, he'd have had a brilliant spoof of dysfunctional family opuses.

Maybe it's Anton Chekhov who should be called to account. What hath he wrought?! There's just no getting away from the Chekhovian gloom prevailing here, minus the comic undercurrents. The action takes place -- much of it in the wee hours -- in a kitchen and a living-room where shifting groups huddle to moan and groan about their troubles. Nelson has even divided Rodney's Wife into four scenes, as Chekhov did his classics. At the end, when the villa is emptying, a seasoned theatergoer may almost expect to hear designer Scott Lehrer pipe in the sound of axes felling a cherry orchard. Nelson only deviates from the Russian master with a prologue and an epilogue in which Fay's and Rodney's daughter (also played by Haviland Morris) announces that the play depicts the circumstances leading to her birth. Since Chekhov isn't available to take the blame for Rodney's Wife, Richard Nelson will have to bear it.