When Come Back, Little Sheba erupts into violence, it ignites as drama. When Kevin Anderson, armed with a hatchet and a battery of bitter truths as the alcoholic, sexually frustrated Doc, turns on Lola, his pathetic, childlike wife (S. Epatha Merkerson), you may find yourself flinching in the face of such raw, powerful emotions. The scene is astonishingly cruel for a Broadway play of the period (1950), and, as played by these two pros, it has a frightening volatility.
It's too bad that Michael Pressman's revival takes so long to get to the point. Not that it's entirely his fault; playwright William Inge (Bus Stop) had an almost clinical insight into the loneliness that ravaged his plain-spoken, plain-living Midwesterners, but his storytelling style here is awfully sluggish. The first act lays out Doc and Lola's backstory (he got her pregnant, they married, she lost the baby, he hit the bottle) repeatedly, documenting Lola's empty life in exhausting detail. (I lost track of how many times she called out for the title character, a lost pet and all-purpose symbol of loss.) In these scenes, Pressman's staging is distressingly flat; there's no feeling that Doc and Lola are sitting on a tinderbox of repressed emotions.
Also, far too much time is spent on the problems of Marie (Off Broadway's current It Girl, Zoe Kazan, doing her best), the perky co-ed for whom Doc secretly lusts. Marie is the center of a standard '50s triangle; she's torn between Bruce (Chad Hoeppner), the go-getting salesman who, she feels, is husband material, and Turk (Brian J. Smith), the well-toned track star also known for his bedroom athletics. There's so much hand-wringing about girls who have sex before marriage if Marie sleeps with Turk, will history repeat itself itself, à la Doc and Lola? that you start to wonder if anyone onstage has ever heard of a condom.
Still, the two stars infuse their roles with a painful honesty. Anderson's Doc is a sad, middle-aged prig, haunted by desires he can't verbalize, grasping sobriety by his fingernails. Merkerson in a performance that's light-years away from her tough police lieutenant on Law & Order is a revelation. Her Lola has a heartbreaking simplicity, intolerable neediness you can see how Doc ended up in the drunk tank and dignity in the face of crushing loss. The final scene, in which husband and wife face each other in the cold light of day, packs a knockout punch. (Tickets: Telecharge.com or 212-239-6200) B-