Unfit for Inhabitation

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Remember when actors just wanted to direct? Those were the days. Now, it seems, actors like to fancy themselves wordsmiths with stories to tell worthy of expensive Off-Broadway productions. Zach Braff made a convincing case for himself as a playwright this past summer with All New People; Zoe Kazan, a New York City stage favorite, is less persuasive with We Live Here, given a sumptuous production by Manhattan Theatre Club.

We Live Here, despite its two-hour running time, is a flimsy excuse for a play. Set over the course of one day (and a very long night), Kazan's story is about family. Specifically, an upper-middle class white family with pretentions of scholarship and musical talent. Write what you know has never resulted in so painful an offering.

Back from Juilliard for her sister's wedding, Dinah (Betty Gilpin, unconvincing as a 19-year-old) brings in tow her new boyfriend David (Oscar Isaac), who teaches at the school. Except she knows David from before they met at school, back when he was her now-deceased older sister's high school boyfriend. This does not seem to strike Dinah-or Kazan-as creepy. Instead, it's the catalyst for a melodramatic climax that finds Dinah's soon-to-be-married sister Althea (Jessica Collins) screaming confessions into the night.

There's a whole lot of screaming in We Live Here, which looks and feels like a Nancy Myers movie, if Myers took a sledgehammer to her carefully constructed stories and blithely wealthy characters. Althea screams at her fiancé Sandy (Jeremy Shamos, the one saving grace of the play) and her mother (Amy Irving, already screamed hoarse prior to opening night), while engaging in an icy détente with David. Should you not realize why she's so unhappy to see David, then my apologies that you have never before read a book, watched a movie or seen a play. If, like most of the audience, you spotted the various second-act reveals in the play's opening moments, settle in for a long, dull evening.

Kazan reveals no previously unseen talent for writing characters, crafting dialogue or even conjuring up a compelling plot. The highest stakes in We Live Here are the pending nuptials of Sandy and Althea, two characters about whom all we know is that he's a sweetheart and she has a tendency to turn shrill. We are, however, treated to the unfortunate sight of Collins crawling on the floor of her parents' living room, pretending to be a "naughty kitty" that Sandy will adopt and take home.

Director Sam Gold, who has given audiences some of the most beautifully nuanced shows of the past few seasons, is capable of much more than his work here would indicate. His direction is jittery, as if he was afraid that stillness would prompt recognition on the part of the audience that what they're watching is as inorganic as a play about a suburban Massachusetts family who have conversations about hamartia ("fatal flaw," for those who don't know their Latin) can be. Oh, and Althea's dead twin was named Andromeda. Don't worry if you don't get the reference; Kazan drives the point home with the subtlety of a hammer to the skull.

Even less subtle is her abrupt ending, which resolves nothing and aims for complexity but merely succeeds at trendy ambiguity. Moments after the family has aired their dirty laundry (more screaming), Althea and Dinah tearily embrace?and curtain. The suddenness of the ending would be more frustrating if we hadn't been ready to leave these whiny, self-involved characters long ago. They may live there, but thankfully we're only visiting.

We Live Here
Through Nov. 6, NY City Center, 131 W. 55th St. (betw. 6th and 7th Aves.), www.manhattantheatreclub.com; $80.

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