"Painting Churches," by playwright Tina Howe, is a WASP variation on "Portnoy's Complaint" -- an insidious clash of wills between parents and child in the very correct confines of Beacon Hill. By force of good manners, the play holds much of the emotional turmoil just below the surface, letting it up every so often to sputter for air.

At the Olney Theatre, director Tony Giordano unfortunately lacks the firm hand to make the most of this dramatic tension. While the production has funny and occasionally moving moments, the evening on the whole is a muddle, leaving the audience no more enlightened -- and only slightly more entertained -- than when it came in.

As the play opens, Mags Church, an up-and-coming artist trying to escape from the shadow of her Pulitzer-winning poet father and awesomely Brahminic mother, arrives at their Boston town house to paint their portrait. Fanny Church, however, seems more interested in packing up for a final move to a beach cottage, and Gardner Church in trying to write a book of criticism, than in sitting still for Mags.

The ensuing week, presented in two acts, affords the lovingly self-involved parents and their insecure but talented daughter plenty of opportunity to bandy memories, volley bons mots, hurl accusations, fling old disappointments and ultimately drop their careful fac,ades before the portrait is done. Presumably, though it is not apparent at the Olney, the play progresses from light comedy to heavy dramatics, for a climactic shock of recognition.

William Swetland, shambling around the stage in befuddlement, plays Gardner Church as a man of towering ego, calculated charm and fiercely protected innocence, unable to deal with the decline of his creative and physical powers except by becoming a child. When he throws a raging tantrum in Act 2 -- over his inability to write -- Swetland does so revealingly.

Tandy Cronyn, herself the offspring of prominent parents (actors Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn), would seem to have been cleverly cast as Mags, but she looks uncomfortable in the role. Insistently overactive, she has hit upon a way of getting around the stage that is less walk than locomotion. Her musings on her childhood are speechy, declaimed rather than said. As for Anne Gerety's Fanny, she is just not a believable Brahmin, her performance loose and mushy where flintiness is required. The physical production, meanwhile, is not particularly attentive -- the Beacon Hill parlor looks tacky -- and this doesn't help.

Painting Churches, by Tina Howe. With Anne Gerety, William Swetland and Tandy Cronyn; directed by Tony Giordano; costumes, Kate Corbley; Setting, Joseph St. Germain; Lighting, James D. Waring. At the Olney Theatre through Aug. 4.