Stephen Belber's ''Carol Mulroney," in its world premiere by the Huntington Theatre Company, has many clever lines, an ingenious structure, thoughtful acting, solid design, and the kind of commitment and backing from a significant company that most playwrights only dream of. It is painful, therefore, to report that the play has a hollow core where its heart ought to be.
Belber, whose credits include ''Match," ''Tape," coauthorship of ''The Laramie Project," and multiple episodes of ''Rescue Me" and ''Law & Order: SVU," has said that he wanted to write a play about ''someone with a sort of inexplicable sadness."
Carol Mulroney, who spends most of the night on the roof of her urban town house, is indeed inexplicably sad. Belber gives us some of the reasons -- a troubled marriage, a childhood tragedy, a complex relationship with her father, an untrustworthy friend -- and has the characters around this young woman spend a lot of time describing her sadness. He also has them talk about her other qualities, and we see her in a variety of moods. Clearly, he wants to depict a complicated person whose motives and desires are often mysterious, even to herself.
But there's a difference between mystery and confusion. In plays, if not in life, we look for some kind of exploration of the mystery -- not a tidy resolution, but a coherent, emotionally satisfying narrative that, by the end, makes us feel that we have walked a path with a real human being and gained some insight into her sorrows and joys. What ''Carol Mulroney" gives us instead is a collection of monologues and images, some wonderfully intelligent and some depressingly crude in both language and thought, that leave us, 90 minutes later, struck mainly by the observation that Carol's most typical line is ''I don't know."
As Carol, Ana Reeder manages to inflect this line with various shadings of puzzlement and wonder; she speaks and moves like an exploring, tentative child, which feels right. Like the other gifted actors onstage with her, however, Reeder is hamstrung by a script that at once under- and over-explains. Belber's speeches can run almost shockingly long, and they're full of literary-sounding phrases. But somehow you can't quite get a grip on who these people are; it's as if the language obscures, rather than clarifies, their true natures.
Would Carol's blustery salesman of a father, for example, really say of the women's cosmetics that have made his fortune, ''It's the face we put on to face the folly; it's our savior, our Apollonian veil spread delicately across the void"? Would Carol's complicated best friend, a smart and apparently feminist artist, really use the most hateful word for female genitalia, repeatedly and bizarrely, in a strange and nasty soliloquy that winds up with her imagining her ''spores" being inhaled by a despondent Turkish sailor?
Belber is lucky to have fine actors -- Larry Pine as the father, Johanna Day as the friend -- bringing as much nuance and dimension as possible to such speeches. Tim Ransom and Reuben Jackson also do what they can with the thankless roles of Carol's husband, Lesley, and rival salesman Ken. And if Lisa Peterson's direction sometimes veers too far toward cheap laughs at the expense of character, it's only partly her fault. The script is already tilting in that direction, with its persistent favoring of clever phrasing or neatly worked-out structure over believable human feeling (as when the characters joke at the most unlikely moments or repeatedly mention the time in order to clue us in to how the narrative timeline is circling back on itself).
The Huntington has been working on ''Carol Mulroney" with Belber since 2003, when the play received a staged reading in the company's ''Breaking Ground" program. Its designers have given it their all, particularly in the multilevel set by Rachel Hauck that evokes Carol's rooftop. So much effort; so little reward. It's enough to make a person explicably sad.
Louise Kennedy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.