As Wallace Shawn expounds on tales of his character's ''member'' something he does quite often over the course of three-plus hours of his new maximum opus Grasses of a Thousand Colors one can't help but recall the hilarious moment in Woody Allen's Manhattan when Allen visually discovers that the ex-boyfriend/teacher who exhibited unbridled sexual prowess with Diane Keaton is, indeed, Shawn.
At age 69, Shawn barely seems to have aged since Allen's 1979 film, and his personal ability to hold an audience with simple prose remains undiluted, as seen in the triumphant revival of his play The Designated Mourner this past summer at the Public Theater (where Grasses is currently running, through Nov. 24). This time, though, his tale is a surreal stew of monologues and scenes touching on nature's revenges, ecological strife, cuisine (let's not forget My Dinner With Andre), interspecies love affairs with cats, and much talk of masturbation. And it all feels, well, masturbatory.
Directed with spare elegance by frequent collaborator Andre Gregory (his famous movie-dinner companion), the production lets Shawn's wordplay dominate. Shawn plays Ben, a smug scientist decked out in a dressing robe and armed with a mysterious purple tonic, asking us: ''What is the greatest problem facing the world today?'' Then, through three acts, he expounds on multiple topics with the occasional assist of evocative projections and three costars who represent feline (as well as feminine) wiles, often literally slinking around the stage: Julie Hagerty (kittenish and deceptive), Emily Cass McDonnell (nonchalant and withdrawn), and Jennifer Tilly (feral and aggressive). (McDonnell and Tilly reprise the roles they played during a 2009 London production; Hagerty takes over for Oscar nominee Miranda Richardson.)
Shawn's script is often provocative and, at times, fascinatingly blunt some of the language might sound at home in a Seth Rogen comedy. But even within the framework of avant-garde free association, Grasses is less than the sum of its parts, and the imbalance extends to the women as well. Hagerty is quietly affecting as the most maternal figure, while Tilly is expectedly Tilly-like, energetic and likable with her breathy, non-dulcet vocal tones. But McDonnell, in the most under-imagined role as the youngest, most dependent of Ben's female muses, gives an undefined, affectless performance that can't compete with the natural charisma surrounding her.
You have to hand it to Shawn for bravado and alert self-awareness. In one cheeky, direct address before the end of the second act, he alerts the audience that snacks and refreshments will be served, for ''those of you who will be coming back'' (some folks did not). Grasses eventually feels like an exercise in intellectual spinning of wheels, sometimes in odd but intriguing directions. But Shawn notwithstanding, this production is more like a protracted appetizer when you crave a full meal. B-