But these attempts to sketch the women’s lives and the ethos of the eras they live through are unconvincing, laced as they are with hasty anthropology and a whiff of Wikipedia.
So when Claudette gets a job in the haberdashery department at Macys in 1947 or Charley attends a Beatles concert in 1965, the specifics seem paradoxically generic. The skipped-over patches necessitated by the play’s chronological format likewise become little more than name-checks: Leonard Bernstein, AIDS, Valerie Solanas, Sept. 11, Jane Jacobs, poor demolished Penn Station.
Those last two are a tipoff to what Stephens, whose earlier plays “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” and “Heisenberg” were crackling fun, may be up to here. Rather than adding to the catalog of works in which monsters prevail and little lives go unnoticed, Stephens seems to prefer, in “Morning Sun,” to eulogize the loss of a quieter idea of civic life, and also of theater. The New York City he offers — admittedly from afar; he’s British — feels relentlessly sepia, like 1930s social drama but without the social disruption. It’s a place that can be modest about its grandeur, where work is honored and sadness is part of the light.
That Hopperesque quality — “Morning Sun” takes its name from Edward Hopper’s 1952 portrait of a woman staring out a sun-filled window — is the play’s most attractive trait. Neugebauer’s staging doesn’t pick up on it, though; the set, by the design collective called dots, references a painterly spareness but leaves out the beauty part. (It’s just a big, ugly room, less like a fifth-floor walk-up than a basement, with barely any sunlight at all.) And since the women are mostly speaking from different eras, or from some unspecified time beyond time, the home they all occupy comes off less as a real place than as a purgatory.
Under these conditions, a lot is asked of the actors; all three deliver. Brown, in her snappish mode, is wonderfully entertaining, and Ireland brings a sparkly, neurotic wit to the weakest material. (Tessa seems to have been reverse engineered from a list of plot necessities.) But Falco, perhaps because she is the only one who plays no other characters, offers the richest portrait; even if you don’t quite believe in Charley, you believe that she does, and that’s often enough.
Even when it’s not, the play is no disaster, just strangely becalmed and unresponsive. Only rarely can you detect its pulse, let alone the feeling Stephens describes as “the sadness in your chest.” Claudette, speaking for Charley after the end of a relationship, says of that feeling, “What’s odd is there is no reason that you can understand why people should feel sadness or shame in their actual heart, an organ the primary function of which is to maintain the distribution of blood around the body. But you do.”
It’s a beautiful line, but also an unintentional diagnosis. In “Morning Sun” you mostly feel the heartbreak in your head.
Tickets Through Dec. 19 at Manhattan Theater Club; manhattantheatreclub.com. Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes.