NEW YORK -- It is indicative that Jules Feiffer calls his latest play "Elliot Loves." Not "Elliot Loves Joanna," although that is the name of the twice-divorced real estate agent the title character has been seeing, three times a week for six weeks, when the drama begins.
No, "Elliot Loves" is as far as Feiffer wants to take it.
What concerns him most, it seems, are the self-doubts, the fears, the neuroses and the resentments that his hero, a Chicago pollster, brings to the relationship, thereby putting it under a severe strain. Joanna can't even say "piece of cake" -- which she does regularly and, to Elliot's mind, inappropriately -- without setting his teeth on edge.
The trouble is, there really isn't much of a relationship here to begin with -- nothing significant to come apart, nothing meaningful to be patched up. That doesn't prevent the central characters -- and some of the peripheral ones as well -- from engaging in endless analysis of the situation. "Elliot Loves" picks away at a stumbling romance as if it were a scab.
There was some reason to hope that matters might have turned out otherwise. The play (off-Broadway at the Promenade Theatre) reunites Feiffer and director Mike Nichols, who collaborated fruitfully on the 1971 film "Carnal Knowledge." Its stars, Anthony Heald and Christine Baranski, have done well under other, more congenial circumstances. Not just in his cartoons, but in such comedies as "Little Murders" and "Grown Ups," Feiffer has proved himself an incisive observer of society.
Baranski, however, is the only one to emerge unscathed from this downbeat endeavor, even though her character suffers the verbal equivalent of a mugging at the play's end. She's always been wonderfully entertaining in states of comic dither, and Feiffer provides her with ample opportunity to display her unraveled nerves.
Elliot, you see, has finally decided to introduce Joanna to his old high school buddies at a dinner party in a North Side high-rise. As they wait for the elevator, Joanna runs through the guest list -- Phil is a lush or was; Bobby is black and works for Playboy; Larry once drove his ex-wife's car over a cliff. Simultaneously, she is dabbing on her makeup, combing out her hair, puffing furiously on a cigarette and doing everything it is possible to do in an apartment lobby to avoid taking the elevator. When it comes, she bolts, leaving Elliot in the lurch.
Joanna doesn't summon the courage to show up at the party until late in the evening, by which time the wives have gone off to a movie and the men are sloshed. (Phil, the ex-drinker, is still sober, but mouse gray.) The guys have reminisced about the past, circulated a sheaf of dirty pictures and phoned in a request for a pair of call girls.
It's not an auspicious moment for an entrance, but Joanna, still smoking like a stovepipe, makes a game effort to keep up conversation. She brays appreciatively at less-than-clever remarks and downs a few drinks herself. Elliot, mute on the sidelines, seethes with anger.
Just why this should be -- just why any of this play should be -- is supposedly revealed in the final scene -- a lacerating post-party telephone conversation between Elliot and Joanna, during which he savagely attacks her before bursting into tears and confessing his love. Answers are not forthcoming, though. The most Heald -- his face red, his eyeballs bulging -- can do with the character at this point is to make him appear dangerously psychotic.
Baranski stands up to the abuse with a mixture of guts and grief, counterattacking when the blows come too close but mostly struggling desperately to understand what's gone wrong. (In that, she is not unlike us.) The effort gives her a decency that is evident nowhere else. Invariably, she's the one you're drawn to.
Elliot is so preoccupied with sorting out his own tangled motivations and feelings that it is impossible to imagine him having a successful relationship with anything but a mirror. In the long, torturous monologue that opens the play, he proclaims that "sex without guilt is garbage. It has no moral dimension." He defines love as "the distance between what I need and what I'm getting." He admits that his ambition with Joanna is to penetrate her secret self and "win acceptance from that part that no man has ever reached before."
But all the philosophizing and self-probing don't really define him for us or endear him to us. Presumably, some of his mental seesawing is intended to be comical -- at least until the knives come out -- but an overall sourness permeates the script and you feel a little creepy for laughing when you do.
From the start of his career as half of the 1960s' most inventive improvisational comic team, Nichols has been drawn to the neuroses between the sexes. With equal brilliance, he has staged the raging hysteria of "Luv" and the imploding passion of "The Real Thing." But here, he can't dispel the lulling dullness of Feiffer's script.
Elliot's pals are no charmers, although David Pierce nicely suggests the delicate equilibrium of the newly sober, and Oliver Platt has a slovenly vigor as a chump who has come to prefer his VCR to women ("no regrets, no recriminations, no consequences," he explains). Set designer Tony Walton's high-rent apartment is not far removed from a plush bordello, which could be the point.
After all, none of the men has had much luck with women. Elliot may love, but you'll have to take his word for it. The only times he and Joanna talk to each other, either she's a nervous wreck or he's an avenging fury.
Elliot Loves, by Jules Feiffer. Directed by Mike Nichols. Sets, Tony Walton; costumes, Ann Roth; lighting, Paul Gallo. With Anthony Heald, Christine Baranski, Oliver Platt, David Pierce, Bruce A. Young, Latanya Richardson. At the Promenade Theatre in New York.