In "The Golden Age," playwright A.R. Gurney Jr. appears to be striving for a comedy of manners, a bubbly glance at civilization through the eyes of a grande dame. But what Gurney manages, skating along the surface, is scant comedy and predictable mannerisms.
The production at the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater, an American premiere, boasts a beautifully appointed set -- an Upper East Side brownstone -- and a beautifully appointed cast: Irene Worth, Stockard Channing and Jeff Daniels.
But neither performers nor period furniture can lend depth to these shallow shoals, or weight to characters made of cardboard, lights and mirrors. In the end it's all inoffensive enough but also slightly maddening, as though you were promised filet mignon, then served nothing juicier than a photograph of it.
The story -- one better suited to Agatha Christie than comedy -- concerns a young freelance writer named Tom, who ingratiates himself with a reclusive octogenarian named Isabel Hastings Hoyt and her granddaughter, Virginia, in order to rummage through the great lady's memory and memorabilia.
She sure has a lot of it, making the play's longest-running and perhaps only joke go quickly from charming to tiresome. That is, she has a postcard from her pal Joseph Conrad, an autographed song sheet from Cole Porter, a photo of buddies Calvin Coolidge and Edith Wharton in bathing suits -- her friend "Eleanor Roosevelt never went skinny-dipping when Faulkner was there because of his position on the Negroes" -- brandy from Trotsky, cigars from Freud -- "He wanted to psychoanalyze me but I refused" -- and on and on with one dropped name after another.
For Tom, Hoyt's life and times evoke a "golden age," especially because she owns an unpublished manuscript by "America's finest writer," F. Scott Fitzgerald. It's a lost piece of "The Great Gatsby" that would make that novel finally "hang together," Tom believes.
Daniels plays Tom as an infatuated puppy, but he's really no more sympathetic than a cipher. He becomes obsessed with wresting that magic manuscript from the wizened old bird, the better to publish it for fun and profit.
For Hoyt, this young intruder represents the possibility of a lucrative book and movie contract and protection for her lonely granddaughter, played as a sad-sack frump by Channing. Hoyt knows that she will soon be dead, with nothing to leave to Virginia. The old lady says of Fitzgerald, meanwhile, "Hasn't he been pored over enough?" -- a better point than the playwright seems to appreciate.
As Hoyt, Worth exudes class but no mystery: You learn everything you'll ever learn about her, and everything you need to know, from her first few minutes on stage. Channing and Daniels give workmanlike performances, but it's never clear why she should be attracted to him, or he to her: They just seem a tad pathetic. Through it all one can't help wondering, why should we care? -- and what's all the fuss? THE GOLDEN AGE -- At the Eisenhower through October 15.