03/18/2013 08:27 am ET Updated May 18, 2013

First Nighter: Lanford Wilson's Outstanding Mound Builders Flattened in Jo Bonney's Signature Revival

Lanford Wilson -- who died in 2011 at 73 and who was acclaimed throughout his career but is perhaps still underrated -- wrote, among other irresistible plays, Hot l Baltimore, The Fifth of July, Balm in Gilead, Talley's Folly (currently at the Roundabout), Talley & Son, Lemon Sky, The Rimers of Eldritch, Burn This, The Gingham Dog, Redwood Curtain, Serenading Louie and Book of Days.

He's on record, however, as regarding his Obie-winning opus, The Mound Builders, as his best work. I heartily agree with him -- while placing it alongside Sympathetic Magic, a play that earned him another Obie but remains so little regarded it's not mentioned in the program bio for the Pershing Square Signature Center's current Mound Builders revival (about which more later).

One of Wilson's favorite approaches to a script was assembling a group of people with an off-beat common interest or situation and examining the intricacies of their interaction. Certainly, The Mound Builders follows this alluring formula by unfolding as Professor August Howe recalls with chagrin the disintegration of an archaeological project dear to his heart.

As in February 1975 he shows slides of the failed dig (Shawn Sagady's designs), he remembers the events of the previous and disheartening Blue Shoals, Illinois summer. Scenes from it come alive involving him and assistant Dr. Dan Loggins who are busy uncovering the site of a long-buried Indian village distinguished by intriguing mounds and evocative artifacts,

Excitedly occupied with the project, they're also caught up with the actions and emotions of Howe's wife Cynthia, daughter Kirsten, emotionally troubled sister Delia, Loggins's gynecologist wife Jean and Chad Jasker, the son of the landowner whose grounds they're probing and who has potentially lucrative commercial plans for the property that are at odds with the dig's future as an enlightening tourist attraction.

The beauty of Wilson's writing is how subtly he depicts the interplay of the characters while Howe's and Loggins's investigation into the lives of the vanished mound builders unfolds. What he's getting at is encouraging observers to think about the similarities and differences of the way life is navigated in the present and was experienced in the past.

His first act is an inviting overview of the characters in relation to one another. His second act follows what transpires when Chad, a troubled fellow intent on seducing the married and pregnant Jean, realizes he can undermine Howe's tourist-attraction plans. The work's eventual dramatic suspense hinges on Chad's and his (unseen) father's desire to take advantage of a highway scheduled to go through the onetime mound-builder territory.

A way of describing Wilson's intention is to say he's a master of behavioral nuances who's also aware that figures with incompatible goals may reach impasses that undo everyone concerned. And in 1975, when Wilson introduced The Mound Builders, he made his trenchant point by working closely -- as he made a smart habit of doing--with director Marshall Mason.

The pair had founded The Circle Repertory Company alongside Tanya Berezin and Robert Thirkield. So the original cast, highly attuned to Wilson's sensibility, included company members Thirkield and Berezin, Trish Hawkins, Jonathan Hogan, John Strasberg, Stephanie Gordon and young Lauren S. Jacobs. The ensemble's responsive participation serves as no small explanation for the production's immense success.

And now -- delayed until this late in the review for disheartening reasons -- the report on the Signature revival of Wilson's extraordinary play in the Romulus Linney Courtyard space. The least painful way to comment on it is to say that, as directed by Jo Bonney -- working below her usual caliber -- it does very little to recapture Wilson's memorable achievement.

A sorrier response would be suggesting that the tepid results -- underplaying in the first half, overplaying in the second half -- could make those seeing the work for the first time assume the problem is the author's. An impassioned partisan could get nowhere trying to convince patrons who missed the original production that the finesse required to maximize Wilson's manuscript is completely lacking. An impassioned partisan could also worry that this deficient undertaking might actually harm Wilson's reputation.

Hard to account for the shortfall when capable actors who've proved themselves elsewhere don't rise to the occasion. For the record, those toiling on Neil Patel's uninteresting set and in Theresa Squire's well-done wardrobes include David Conrad (the best of them), Danielle Skraastad, Janie Brookshire, Zachary Booth, Lisa Joyce, Rachel Resheff and Will Rogers, who goes way too far in delineating the nervous Chad.

But the news isn't all bad. The Circle Rep production, so gorgeous as crafted by those earlier theatrical mound builders, is available on DVD. It was taped for WNET screening in 1976 -- with Brad Dourif replacing Strasberg and Hal Holbrook hosting. That version, Lanford Wilson die-hards and initiates, is the recommended ticket.