Grotesque Lovesongs, WNEP Theater Foundation, at the Second City, Donny’s Skybox Studio. Much like Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres, a rethinking of King Lear, playwright Don Nigro’s setting of a classic in a modern context is too diluted and touchy-feely to be effective. Nigro’s loose adaptation of 19th-century novelist Guy de Maupassant’s Pierre et Jean retains all the standard elements of melodrama: a pair of rivalrous brothers, a secret that threatens to tear them apart, and a convenient plot twist that might ultimately bridge the gap between them. However, Grotesque Lovesongs fails to convey its source’s wit and moral weight.

Part of the problem is Nigro’s Indiana bumpkins, who are too stereotypical to be convincing. The characters’ petty hopes and aspirations might be viewed as extended metaphors for thwarted ambition, but they never take on any larger significance. Michael Ross delivers a strong performance as Pete, the brooding brother–in fact all five cast members manage to add some depth and humanity to Nigro’s humdrum nuclear family. But they can’t compensate for the script’s glaring deficiencies. And although director Jen Ellison creates some memorable stage pictures, her staging is also confusing: she allows the actors to move about with little regard for imaginary doorways and walls. These drawbacks, coupled with the script’s pat, anticlimactic ending and sluggish pace, make for a particularly long evening. –Nick Green