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Review: 'The Gift' wraps itself up in banalities

An appealing and capable cast keeps the flicker of hope alive that Joanna Murray-Smith's play "The Gift" will be worth our time despite the mounting evidence to the contrary. But by the end of this 90-minute comedy even the actors seem done in by the effort of sustaining the illusion that there's something important going on.

Murray-Smith, you might recall, is the Australian playwright who gave us "The Female of the Species," the low-wattage farce starring Annette Bening in the Geffen Playhouse's 2010 production. The author's latest, which opened at the Geffen on Wednesday, aspires to be a boulevard comedy in the Yasmina Reza vein, only kinder and gentler.

Imagine "Art" crossed with "God of Carnage." Now imagine this hybrid creature with all its teeth pulled out.

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The invaluable Kathy Baker leads things off as Sadie, a middle-aged Los Angeles wife who opens up straightaway to the audience about the state of her marriage. Apparently, ever since her husband, Ed (Chris Mulkey), struck it rich with his woodworking machinery business (the details of this enterprise are as sketchy as the plot), the magic between them has faded.

For the couple's 25th wedding anniversary, Sadie has booked a five-star island paradise getaway ("good enough for the Sarkozys," she boasts). She's hoping "to recapture something of the mystery and the electricity and the danger" of their old passion, though Ed is having difficulty getting beyond the $9 it costs for Pringles in the minibar.

Here, in this Club Med for money-burners, Sadie and Ed meet a younger couple, Chloe (Jaime Ray Newman) and Martin (James Van Der Beek), who appear to still be in the honeymoon phase. Sadie gazes longingly at the lovebirds, nostalgic for what she and Ed once had. The older couple strikes up a conversation with the younger pair, and a friendship instantly develops.

Martin is a conceptual artist, concentrating on installations; Chloe is a writer with a PhD who's convinced that her husband is a genius. New Yorkers, they embody the sophistication that, in Murray-Smith's stereotypical setup, the Southern Californian couple lack.

A businessman to the bone, Ed is given to such boorish pronouncements as "I don't see the point of fiction" and "You can't have too many impressionists." But he has good taste in wines, and he keeps Martin and Chloe, who won their trip in a raffle (another of Murray-Smith's implausible touches), tipsily amused.

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The title hinges on an occurrence that happens midway through the play after this quartet heads out to sea in a rented hotel boat. A sudden storm knocks Ed, who can't swim, overboard. Martin, risking his own life, rescues him.

In return for saving him from certain death, Ed wants, along with his wife, to give Martin and Chloe a big gift, "something that matters." Martin and Chloe are embarrassed by this offer, but a year later in Los Angeles, to mark the first birthday of Ed's "second life," they announce what it is they would like from their generous friends.

I won't spoil the surprise, though the way Murray-Smith teases the audience with the request, I would be justified in doing so. After a few unsubtle hints, it becomes painfully obvious to everyone but Ed and Sadie what Martin and Chloe are going to ask for. I'm surprised someone in the audience didn't shout out the answer like a bright, impatient fifth-grader.

Directed by Maria Aitken on a glossy set by Derek McLane that's as superficially appealing as the writing, "The Gift" tries, in its contrived, meretricious way, to distinguish what separates artists from regular folk. Martin and Chloe are committed first and foremost to experiencing their own pleasure. Responsibility, they argue, can only diminish their passion for art, life and each other. They are sensualists struggling to break free of the ties of respectability and conformity.

Meanwhile, that expensive vacation seems to have worked wonders for the older couple. Once disdainful of highbrow jargon, Ed is now a habitué of avant-garde exhibitions, parroting the lingo like a regular reader of Artforum. Ed and Sadie are still bourgeois to the core, but now she cooks Moroccan and the two spend decadent afternoons in bed drinking Champagne and watching "Jeopardy."

Yet the nature of Martin and Chloe's request shocks Ed so profoundly that he reverts back to his less tolerant self. He just can't understand how artists can justify putting themselves and their work before all other obligations.

This might unnerve us too were the situation even remotely credible. As it stands, "The Gift" is an eye-rolling dramatic exercise, enlivened only modestly with wit and enacted by a talented ensemble that's far too good for the material.

Van Der Beek (best known for his starring role in "Dawson's Creek") and Newman make a captivating urban pair — their Martin and Chloe hold our attention even when Murray-Smith loses it.

As Sadie, Baker epitomizes the type of woman with enough disposable income to be perpetually on a journey of self-discovery. She's almost too genuine for the world of "The Gift," a blooming orchid in a plastic garden.

Mulkey has the toughest role of all. His Ed must transform from one type of cartoon into another and then back again. The blustering performance adds levity and drive to the production, though don't expect much in the way of character truth from a play that treats its figures like pawns in a silly game.

At the service of Murray-Smith's Big Point, "The Gift" comes off as pretty much pointless.

charles.mcnulty@latimes.com

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