03/06/2013 08:36 am ET Updated May 06, 2013

Stage Door: The Old Boy, Madrid

Elite prep schools exist to produce an elite citizenry. The education may be first-rate, but the ultimate goal has been to unite a select few via social connections and old-school ties. Those alliances are traded on ever after.

That unique world of old-line prep schools -- and the culture they promote -- is the focus of A.R. Gurney's The Old Boy, now at off-Broadway's Clurman Theater. Gurney is best known for The Dining Room, Love Letters and The Cocktail Hour, which often focus on Northeastern WASPs.

Gurney himself attended St. Paul's School, which has its share of storied alums. He understands the subculture and is sensitive to its long-term impact. Those first brushes with love and sex, as well as the charge to become "leading citizens," sets the stage for the future. But The Old Boy is also about unfinished emotional business, the fallout of divorce, the cost of denial and the pain of unfulfilled desire.

The cast does all that's required; the play, however, holds us at arm's length.

Wealthy, aloof Harriet (Laura Esterman) has donated tennis courts in memory of her son Perry (Chris Diwan), who attended the school in the 1960s. Sam (Peter Rini), who acted as Perry's "old boy" or student mentor, is giving a speech to announce the gift.

But Sam, a congressman up for a Cabinet appointment, discovers the past is prologue. He rekindles a brief alliance with Alison (Marsha Dietlein Bennett), and learns the truth about Perry. Suddenly, carefree Sam wonders if his long-ago actions altered his sensitive friend's life.

Issues of destiny, sexual identity and family are examined, but in a restrained fashion. Which may explain why boys like Perry find comfort in more bohemian circles. When Old Boy first opened, Reagan was still president and gay issues were taboo.

Time named it one of the 10 best plays of 1991 -- in part, because it gently addressed such concerns. Now, Reagan's silence on AIDS is seen as bigoted and profoundly dangerous. And plays that skim the surface of upper-crust reflection, devoid of true awareness, seem more empty than insightful.

Similarly, the talented Edie Falco is currently starring in Madrid, now at City Center. It's a confusing, disjointed play about domestic unhappiness. The play opens with the news that Martha (Edie Falco) is missing. It's unclear where she is, but her husband (John Ellison Conlee) and daughter want her back.

The problem -- and it's a big one -- there is no reason given for her sudden departure. There are many legitimate reasons why escape may be necessary. Conversely, some people may prefer independence, however much they love their children. But limbo proves heartbreaking for her daughter, convincingly portrayed by Phoebe Strole.

Madrid addresses the no man's land of uncertainty and the fallout each family member, including her mother (a wonderful Frances Sternhagen), endures. Even the neighbors (Heidi Schreck and Darren Goldstein) are drawn into the existential suffering.

The ties that bind can both comfort and restrict, but we need playwright Liz Flahive to make that case convincingly. Vagueness is punishing. More like vignettes in unhappiness than a fully realized dramatic work, Madrid wastes the talents of a capable cast.