A comedy shouldn't let its characters too far off the hook. The more they squirm, the greater are the chances for both hilarity and revelation.

Leo Brady tosses out a few feeble hooks trying to catch Oliver Sampson, the protagonist of his new play, "Father Time," at Olney Theatre. But Sampson quickly establishes who's in charge. He's the one who does the fishing. He's supposedly a famous, fading author, but he hasn't faded far enough. He easily overwhelms the other characters and the playwright, and "Father Time" becomes a loving testimonial to a not-so-lovable guy.

The audience learns that Oliver is a fake and a blowhard right off the bat, and has been an uncaring father and the philandering veteran of five marriages. His writing isn't so terrific, either. His best works have titles like "Times Winged Buckboard" and "The Joke's On Me."

None of this is supposed to count for very much. The joke is on Oliver only to the extent that his whining relatives make witty wisecracks about him. Some of these jokes are funny, but they aren't effectual. Oliver is untouched.

The play's final image presents Oliver's most acerbic antagonist, his brother, alone on stage and tied up in a telephone cord. Offstage, Oliver's first ex-wife is dangerously close to reconciling with the Great Man, while he's busy typing what we can only assume is more drivel. It's not a pretty picture.

Brady even tries to explain that first ex-wife's estrangement from Oliver, 20 years ago, through a story of her romance with a far-fetched Viennese count. There is no reason to resort to such contrivances to explain why someone wouldn't want to live with Oliver.

Herb Voland and his arching eyebrows do their best to make Oliver an engaging creature. Oliver's loyal retainers - his primary allies - do their duty with a certain degree of charm, while the actors stuck with the roles as his major critics - brother and son - seem irritatingly mannered. Rosemary Murphy makes some adroit moves as the generally same ex-wife but fails to sufficiently explain the old coot. Brady directed his own play, so most of the responsibility must be attributed to him.

There is one nicely nutty scene in which Oliver interrupts some cooing with his ex-wife to attack a fly with a whip. Their son walks into the room and thinks Dad is whipping Mom. Oliver is one the spot.

But generally he's on top. His critics drop drop like the whipped fly. The talk goes on and on, but Oliver's perception of himself goes nowhere.