Photo by Cat Chin

IT'S SAID THAT ANCIENT ATHENIANS VIEWED their lives as small dramas whose audiences, nevertheless, were the gods themselves. (If so, then the Greeks were the first people in show business to look to the skies for good reviews.) Modern playwrights still believe in the deities, but long ago moved them from the balcony onto the stage, where they appear as lawyers, doctors or architects. Our latter-day, white-collar gods are powerful and noble individuals, but they are also gods who fail — however powerfully and nobly — by betraying such weaknesses as lust, rage or simple indecision. Indeed, the more mortal these wingèd characters seem, the more poignant their stories become to us.

Larry Fineberg's drama Failure of Nerve, currently running at Los Angeles Theater Center, looks at what happens when one such anointed figure, a psychiatrist named Susan Vincent (Elizabeth Cava), stumbles and falls under the spell of her patient. “I make people happy for a living” is the doctor's description of her place in the universe, but her Olympian role is about to change to that of a wounded healer. Susan begins the play by pulling the rug from under her boyfriend, Mark (Jeff LeBeau), after discovering an affair he's been conducting for the past half-year. We grow to appreciate the doctor's action, for even if Mark hadn't been philandering, he proves to be one of those annoyingly sensitive males who don't know when to stop talking. Susan has other problems, including a blind, nagging mother, Irma (Barbara Bain), and the memory of a sister who mysteriously died 20 years earlier.

Into this emotional muck walks Kate (Juliet Landau), one of Susan's more volatile patients, who recently created a stir when she posthumously outed another of Susan's patients at the man's funeral. Kate's the kind of done-everything, lived-everywhere free spirit who thinks nothing of appearing at burials and other places uninvited. An effervescent gypsy, Kate proceeds to give Susan a bohemian makeover — and, perhaps, to replace the psychiatrist's dead sister.

Yet she also insinuates herself into the life of Mark's sister, Jane (Gigi Bermingham), Susan's friend who's recently given birth. Kate's obsession with childbearing, aggravated by the botched abortion that prevents her from having children, might set off warning chimes with most shrinks and devotees of Grimms' fairy tales — Susan, however, mistakes that ringing for happy-ending music. Until Act 2, that is, which becomes a veritable Amber Alert once Kate snatches Jane's baby and heads toward a denouement that gives new meaning to the phrase “kitchen-sink drama.”

“MONEY OWED IN EUROPE. AN ABORTION. Lives ruined all around.” This sounds like a come-on for an E! True Hollywood Story segment, but it's actually Jane's rather Victorian judgment of Kate, distilled from the results of an investigation she commissioned behind Susan's back. Why Jane did this, after having barely met her, isn't really clear — one of many developments whose explanations get lost in the blur of this plot's unlikely velocity. Since Failure of Nerve is a surprisingly short work — without its unnecessary intermission, the play runs just over an hour — the languid ballet of encounters and motivations that normally constitutes a play gets rushed here with the speed of time-lapse photography. Either playwright Fineberg is trying to pack too much into too little time or he ran out of enough ideas to justify a full-length production. The result is some kernels of drama that get overheated into popcorn.

Not surprisingly, given its rapid acceleration, the story slips out of focus. In the beginning, everything is clearly about Susan and her struggles with love, an unsupportive mother and the memory of her dead sister. But as the catalyst in this drama, Kate steals the spotlight, and toward the very end, even Jane seems to eclipse the psychiatrist. It's only after Kate obligingly suffers a drug overdose and the mooning Mark reappears, with heart firmly sewn on sleeve, that Susan comes back into her own. By then it's too late, and we've given up trying to figure out what the evening is about.

This Playwrights' Arena production, directed by Jon Lawrence Rivera, often vibrates with a professional enthusiasm that simply can't compensate for the play's hollow center — or its debilitating scene changes. John H. Binkley's rather spare set is hung with Rorschach-like paintings of flowers and other bits of suggestive scenery that are quickly lowered and raised on flies, but this process cannot so efficiently add and remove the show's stagebound props and scenery. There are far too many blackouts for such a brief play — I counted five in Act 2 — and they kill whatever rhythm the play develops.

It doesn't help that Rivera places such an intimate story on a stage that is too big for it — Binkley's gray set pieces, resembling large shelves, are cold chunks of architecture that do little more than block off unneeded space. Still, Landau turns in a performance that is both sidewalk-real and hauntingly ethereal, making the point that there is a fine line indeed between free spirits and ghosts. In her final moments, as her consciousness recedes like a terrible tide, she attempts to excuse her own unforgivable actions while also trying to console Susan; it is a gripping scene, and Landau transcends the material to become a figure who may have wandered in from an Ibsen drawing room.

As the shrink, Cava tries to lend an authoritative tone to her role, but the script only makes her sound melodramatic. A line such as “I'm the pincushion saying no more pins!” only makes Susan sound like an ungrateful pincushion instead of someone who's drawing a line in the sand between herself and both a mother who wants her married and a man who wants to put the ring on her finger. Bain, as her manipulative mother, is equally stuffy and unsympathetic.

In fact, the only other performer who manages to rise above her lines is Bermingham, a fascinating actor who earlier this year wrote and starred in her solo show, Non-Vital Organs, at the Hudson Theater Guild. Bermingham's characters are typically spunky yet cynical women who can be delightfully irksome in their behavior. Her Jane is no different here, and Bermingham's down-to-earth intensity, brought to bear upon this sketchily drawn character, distracts us from the play's unanswered questions.

FAILURE OF NERVE | By LARRY FINEBERG | Playwrights' Arena at LOS ANGELES THEATER CENTER, 514 S. Spring St., downtown Through September 15

LA Weekly