HIDDEN LAUGHTER, Remy Bumppo Theatre Company, at Victory Gardens Theater. Simon Gray’s 1990 play takes its inspiration from T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, considered by some the apotheosis of modernism. Like “Burnt Norton,” the first of the four, it centers on a garden as symbol and stirrer of memory. It may also take its structure from Eliot’s five long stanzas, which correspond to the play’s three-scene first act and two-scene second. Given the script’s source, Gray’s status as a chronicler of quiet desperation, and the focus on a quirky country vicar, this production’s English flatness represents a triumph of execution–which unfortunately translates to a perfectly unpleasant evening.

Set at the summer cottage of a literary agent and his family at intervals throughout the 80s, Hidden Laughter is purposefully static, favoring character and concept over action or plot. Gray’s sparing injection of a magic realism that’s mostly bad mojo is further evidence of his dreary accomplishment. But the supposed allegory of Thatcherism never really materializes, and since all of the almost fun characters are peripheral, the show’s two-plus hours feel like four.

What can one say about plays that are meant to be dispiriting–and are? Despite the melancholy, some dry hilarity erupts here and there, and under James Bohnen’s solid direction the excellent cast is a match for each strategic lull. The only moments that justify all the effort, however, belong to Dale Benson as tragic grandfather Ben and the marvelous David Darlow as the devastatingly wry vicar.