IN "PAINTING CHURCHES," a drawing room comedy/drama,playwright Tina Howe attempts to paint the problems of a family coming to grips with aging and separation. But Howe's work is marked by wide, crude strokes, and as mounted by the Olney Theater cast, it's the dramatic equivalent of a velvet painting.
Prodigal daughter Margaret "Mags" Church, now a trendy SoHo boho artist, returns to Beacon Hill to paint a portrait of her upper-crusty parents: Fanny, a dotty society matron given to buying wild hats at thrift shops, and Gardner, who, we are told, is a world-class poet.
Mags plans to include the portrait in her first big one-woman show (at Leo Castelli Gallery, the first of many art-world names Howe self-consciously flings around like splatters on a Jackson Pollack canvas). Not only are Mags' folks packing the family silver to move into smaller digs on Cape Cod, they are also slipping swiftly into senility.
Howe has found a challenging theme in the process of portrait painting as a way to peel away layers of character. But Howe dithers tediously and relies too much on WASP barbs, revealing little beyond the superficial about the Churches. And Mags is turned into a nag just as her parents' idiosyncracies begin to grow on us.
The kernel of this play is the selfishness and egocentricity of children who never really look at their parents till it's too late. "Paint us? How about opening your eyes and really seeing us?" shrills Fanny at her daughter, who is mostly concerned with being taken seriously by her parents. Howe adds an incongruously dire and self-pitying note to the mother's character, who responds repeatedly to the thought of decrepitude with the suggestion that she'd "put a bullet in my head in a minute" if she didn't have to care for her declining husband.
Mags is portrayed by Tandy Cronyn, daughter of Jessica and Hume. But despite her dramatic pedigree, she's little more than a bundle of nervous energy here, though any actress would struggle with the embarrassingly florid speeches Howe provides. Shrill-voiced Anne Gerety is not believable for an instant as a Brahmin matron. As the doddering dad, William Swetland makes senility seem sweet with his perfect "harrumph" and adorable forgetfulness.
Howe uses poetry well -- the play is stippled with tantalizing snippets from Frost and others, and the beautiful words about aging and mortality resonate nicely in this situation. Still, it's hard to sit still for this portrait.
PAINTING CHURCHES -- At Olney Theater through August 4.