ON the ledger sheet of life, it's not clear which of the two L.A. couples in Kate Robin's "What They Have" is more in the black. Both are attractive and artistically ambitious. Both are striving mightily for that ever elusive balance between self-actualization and self-acceptance. And both love to talk ad nauseam about where they're at.
The play, which had its world premiere Friday at South Coast Repertory, is made up almost entirely of navel-gazing chat. In fact, the slightest of ambivalent feelings can launch an army of words on the different shades of emotional gray.
It's a bit of a slog to be on the receiving end of so much gab, particularly when the range of viewpoints ("white and entitled" pretty much sums it up) is so narrow. Still, Robin, a playwright who was a writer on HBO's dearly departed series "Six Feet Under," is a trenchant observer of what can be called the Whole Foods set -- you know, those sophisticated, globally conscious types who are willing to rack up credit card debt for wild salmon and organic arugula.
The topics under discussion when Robin's sexy and spoiled quartet gets together could make a compendium of opinionated Vanity Fair columns -- everything from the current reality-TV zeitgeist to Wikipedia's colonization of collective memory to "The Secret" of Oprah Winfrey fame.
But it's not all faddism and flashy banter. There's a deeper question motoring the play's smart mouths: How do those who have been raised to expect the world come to terms with the inevitability of failure and loss?
It's a worthwhile investigation, but Robin's writing is more descriptive than dramatic, and as a result, the play's momentum flags. Life happens to these privileged characters, and they feel compelled to parse every passing nuance. Nothing is too trivial, which is part of the joke -- but it grows less funny as darker things befall them and they keep up their narcissistic jawing, as though silence equals abject death.
The story begins when Connie (Marin Hinkle), a highbrow-movie producer, and her successful TV writer husband, Jonas (Matt Letscher), visit their struggling friends Suzanne (Nancy Bell), a painter of abstract canvases, and her somewhat embittered husband, Matt (Kevin Rahm), a songwriter who's giving guitar lessons in the public schools to make ends meet.
Connie, who's eager to buy one of Suzanne's masterpieces, is obsessed with being pregnant. When she pulls out an ultrasound photo, Suzanne, who hasn't told her friends about her latest miscarriage, falls apart.
Meanwhile, Jonas, discreetly agog with his own success, irritates Matt by making affluence seem like the whole point of adulthood. For a music teacher who doesn't have enough money to fix the roof of his house, it's understandably not a lot of fun listening to an overpaid Hollywood scribe complain that he's no longer serious about novel writing.
As in the Stephen Sondheim song "Children and Art," these characters believe the secret of happiness lies in babies and bravos, though the satisfactions of family and work are pitted against each other. And when the tables begin to turn and Suzanne and Matt are granted what they feel has been unjustly withheld, fulfillment is still not guaranteed.
Apparently (and in pointed contradiction to the American religion of winning), the only thing worse than not getting what you want is getting it -- and envying your friend's lack.
Directed by Echo Theater Company artistic director Chris Fields, the production has a stylish urbanity. Sparely appointed, the staging nevertheless devotes careful attention to clothes, haircuts and the right couch.
Loft-like walls on a revolving stage separate the different playing areas of Christopher Barreca's set. And it's fortunate that something moves, because the play itself is unusually static despite the momentous events that occur.
Robin's TV background is evident in her play's tightly focused exchanges, which require little physical motion. The dialogue is the action. But verbally adroit as these scenes from a marriage can be, they're locked into a state of catatonia.
The only reason "What They Have" is onstage and not on some premium cable channel is the work's sustained intellectual pursuit. The discoveries here involve ideas, not just emotions, and Robin doesn't candy-coat her critique.
In terms of theatricality, however, the piece is moribund. And as the tedium thickened in the second half, a curious speculation arose: How would a European playwright whose understanding of the medium hadn't been conditioned by the small screen have livened things up?
Not that the gleamy, telegenic cast delivers boring, realistic performances. They magnify the emotional intensity whenever possible and even get the opportunity to take on smaller roles, changing in front of us into a doctor's lab coat or a therapist's cozy garb.
But the characters overstay their welcome, and Bell and Hinkle have bouts of whining that are extremely grating. Yes, Suzanne and Connie are grappling with genuine grief, but can't they do it more quietly?
Chekhov was also drawn to exploring the eternally frustrating gap between potential and reality. But in addition to offering a wider array of perspectives, he knew the power of something Robin hasn't yet mastered -- the eloquence of silence.
'What They Have'
Where: South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Sundays
Ends: May 4
Price: $28 to $62
Contact: (714) 708-5555, www.scr.org
Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes