Every other week, the eight Donovan sisters -- middle-aged, small-town Catholics from Rhode Island -- meet to play cards, gossip, act girlish and vent a few sisterly antagonisms. In "The Octette Bridge Club," the pre-Broadway comedy at the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre until Feb. 23, playwright P.J. Barry shows us two of their gatherings -- one in 1934, the other 10 years later.
Barry wants to celebrate the ties that sometimes chafe, but mostly bind these women together and sustain them through thick and thin. Unfortunately all the "thick" in their lives seems to occur offstage during the 10-year interim. We get to see the "thin." The result is a vapid, inconsequential play that has all the nourishment of a ham sandwich on white bread -- without the ham.
In the first act, for example, we quickly gather that Betsy, the youngest (Gisela Caldwell), is having marital problems. By the second act, she has been in and out of a mental institution, is learning to assert herself and, to the shock of her more decorous sisters, talks (relatively) frankly about her problems. Over the same period, Connie (Nancy Marchand), the "cut-up" of the brood, develops a back problem, and Mary, the one unmarried sister (Bette Henritze), suffers a stroke that puts her in a wheelchair and affects her speech. You will pick up glimmers of other problems, as well -- a touch of alcoholism here, a suggestion of hanky-panky there.
Good, starchy New Englanders that they are, however, most of the characters would prefer not to dwell on such travails. It's not proper and, besides, they have duties to uphold. As one points out, they are first and foremost mothers, then wives. Being themselves comes in a distant third. So their bridge parties tend to skim along the surface. Flashy Lil (Peggy Cass), the one they all said should have gone into show business, will even plop herself down at the piano and pound out a cheery tune, whenever an unwanted revelation threatens to spoil the fun.
Of course, there can be drama in evasiveness. It's the tension between the mundane, suffocating surface of provincial life and the raging passions underneath that makes Chekhov's plays what they are. But Barry's characters are superficially drawn -- some of them barely qualify as stick figures -- and his dialogue has no more resonance than a steel girder.
In the opening scene, the sisters are being interviewed by a reporter from the Providence Journal, who plans to feature them in the rotogravure section. One by one, each stands up and gives a few salient facts about herself: name, husband's occupation, number of children. It's a facile way to get a lot of exposition out of the way, but worse, Barry does not significantly expand on those thumbnail sketches over the next two hours. The tidbits of information never coalesce into human beings.
In the second act, the sisters are all decked out in Halloween costumes and perform little skits to amuse themselves. But if the specific disguises -- pilgrim lady, Little Red Riding Hood, the Queen of the Nile -- are supposed to tell us something more, I'm at a loss to say what. Betsy comes as Salome and does a dance of the seven veils that I suppose parallels her new determination to bare her soul bravely. But I'm probably forcing things. For all it matters, she could have come as Carrie Nation. Director Tom Moore seems to be at a loss as to how to galvanize this material. He has assembled a competent cast with credits to make you drool in anticipation. But Anne Pitoniak, so moving in " 'night, Mother," is just an unpleasant crab apple; Elizabeth Franz, who gave a memorable performance as "Sister Mary Ignatius," fades into the wallpaper as the mousy, happily married sister; and Lois de Banzie, who triumphed in "Morning's at Seven," doesn't have a role to stand on this time. Marchand -- Mrs. Pynchon in "Lou Grant" -- is given the evening's best lines, which is to say the least mediocre. That she makes them sound vaguely salty is a miracle.
"The Octette Bridge Club" was apparently one of the hits of last year's festival of new plays at the Actors Theatre of Louisville, whence came that other card-table drama, "The Gin Game." Not every hand is a winning hand, alas.