The play’s the thing, as our old buddy Hamlet once confided; and that’s what’s lacking in Hot Summer Nights at the Kennedy’s season-ending world-premiere production of Gods of Autumn by Tony Award®-nominated lyricist Jack Murphy. What we have instead is a series of disjointed tragicomic sketches, largely set in the waiting room of a big-city cancer-treatment center. With apologies to Italian dramatist Luigi Pirandello, we might call it Six Characters in Search of a Unifying Idea to tie them all together.

The world of Gods of Autumn is as phony as one of those three-dollar bills with Barack Obama’s smiling mug, substituting for George Washington’s somber visage. Three of the four main characters — Evelyn (Raleigh actress Dorothy Recasner Brown), Jimmy (Tony-winner Jarrod Emick), and Mary (Broadway up-and-comer Jessica Phillips) — are stereotypes, and the fourth — The Other Part (Lumberton actor Holden Hansen) — is an enigma. Evelyn is a snooty fashionista who edits a Vanity Fair-style magazine, Jimmy is a wisecracking hit man straight out of “The Sopranos,” and Mary is a Catholic nun who has lost her faith. The Other Part is a cipher. He’s not the voice of conscience; he’s not the better (or worse) angel of our nature; and he talks to more than one character, so maybe he’s one of those “gods” mentioned in the play’s title. More likely, The Other Part is a convenient construct to allow the play’s three main characters to speak their interior monologues out loud as they wrestle with their personal demons and their common fear of death.

In addition to these four high-profile inhabitants of Heaven’s (or Hell’s) waiting room, Gods of Autumn features a no-nonsense Nurse (Gilly Conklin); Evelyn’s archetypical clingy mother from the Deep South (also Conklin); and Jimmy’s flamboyant and hopelessly indiscreet girlfriend Bernadette (Jessica Phillips), who is seen mainly in flashbacks. There also are two voices with grossly exaggerated accents — K. Sridhar as the Calcutta Voice and Hilary Russo as the Southern Voice — who make mostly unintelligible announcements over the clinic’s public address system; and playwright/director Jack Murphy is laughing at these latter two unseen clinic employees, not with them, so the Indian and Southern become offensive.

All this is not to say that last Thursday night’s performance did not feature some fine acting. It did, and received a standing ovation at its conclusion. Jarrod Emick, who took home a Tony for playing Joe Hardy in the 1994 Broadway revival of Damn Yankees, gives a gritty characterization of Jimmy, the killer with a conscience that pricks him more and more. Dorothy Brown adds a vivid portrayal as Evelyn; but Jessica Phillips is so soft-spoken as Mary that many of her lines barely make it past the footlights. Phillips is better as Bernadette, a brassy broad whose big mouth proves her undoing.

Dressed all in black and haunting the stage like a bad conscience, Holden Hansen makes The Other Part a man of mystery — a mystery that ultimately has no easy explanation. And Gilly Conklin plays the thankless roles of the colorless clinic Nurse and Evelyn’s whiney Mother with poise and as much personality as the parts allow.

Having spent far too much time in the last 20 years in hospitals and clinics with family members and friends who are heroically fighting losing battles with cancer, I can tell you that Gods of Autumn hits many false notes. Indeed, as its running time approaches two hours, it becomes increasingly harder to endure. Watching this talky, talky, talky play is like sitting on the bank of the River Styx and waiting for a boatman to ferry the newly dead across — but he is caught in a contrary current and, no matter how hard he rows against the tide, never gets any closer to his passengers.

Hot Summer Nights at the Kennedy presents Gods of Autumn Wednesday-Saturday, Aug. 27-30, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, Aug. 31, at 3 p.m. in the Sara Lynn and K.D. Kennedy, Jr. Theater in the Progress Energy Center for the Performing Arts, 2 E. South St., Raleigh, North Carolina 27601. $27.50, except $17.50 Friday-Sunday for students, seniors, and active-duty military personnel with ID. Progress Energy Center Box Office: 919/831-6060 (information only) or through the presenter’s website. Note 1: There will be FREE complimentary beverages and desserts at all intermissions. Note 2: There will be a talkback with playwright and director Jack Murphy and the Gods of Autumn cast following the Aug. 31st Sunday matinee. Hot Summer Nights at the Kennedy: [inactive 2/10]. Jack Murphy: (official web site) and (Internet Broadway Database).
Jarrod Emick: (Internet Broadway Database). Jessica Phillips: [inactive 3/10] (official web site).