First produced in 1979 to considerable acclaim, Tina Howe's "Painting Churches," now at Theatre 40, is a problematic play that is miniaturistic to the point of the insubstantial. How Howe parlayed her microcosmic plot about an eccentric elderly couple and their relationship with their artist daughter into a two-act play remains an enduring mystery.
Not that the result isn't mildly entertaining, with inspired, albeit obvious touches like a parrot that quotes Grey's Elegy. But mildness is the fizzling force behind Howe's all-flow and no-go drama, which too often substitutes deft repartee for actual content.
Famed poet Gardner Church (Michael Forest) and his wife, Fanny (Gloria Stroock), are shutting down their Beacon Hill home in Boston and moving to their cottage on Cotuit. It's their last weekend in the house, and their only daughter Margaret (Ann Hearn), a successful New York artist, arrives to help them finish packing and also to fulfill her longtime intention of painting her blue-blooded parents' portrait.
Sean Nagle's effectively spare set and Debra Garcia-Lockwood's evocative lighting contribute to the elegiac tenor of the play. However, there are few dark corners in this family closet, and the handful of events that constitute the action unfolds innocuously. Oh, Gardner may be slipping into senile dementia, but despite his confusion and incontinence, he's still adorably courtly, rushing off to mix cocktails or quoting long passages of poetry with aplomb.
Veteran performers with charm to spare, Forest and Stroock lend dignity and stature to their dithering characters, and Hearn is delightfully downplayed as the flamboyant Fanny's plain-Jane offspring. Director Anita Khanzandian Jones makes the most of her opportunities and her charming cast, who almost fool us into thinking that there's something in this trifle after all.
* "Painting Churches," Theatre 40, 241 Moreno Drive, Beverly Hills. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 p.m. Ends April 30. $15. (323) 936-5842. Running time:2 hours.