By Jason Clark
Updated February 27, 2014 at 05:00 AM EST
Sandra Coudert

”This is the story of how the pain goes away,” is the first line of Craig Lucas?s newest play Ode to Joy, uttered as the painter Adele (Law & Order: Criminal Intent’s Kathryn Erbe) literally screams out in pain for a reason we will learn later on. Like earlier Lucas plays such as Prelude to a Kiss and The Dying Gaul, his newest — directed by Lucas himself and playing at Off Broadway’s Cherry Lane Theatre — focuses on deception in intimate relations and the searing effects of addiction. (This is a highly personal arena for Lucas, who recently opened up to the New York Times about his struggle with drug addiction.)

The lights come up on a not-yet-open bar where Adele meets the bookish, rakish Bill (Arliss Howard), a cardiac surgeon nursing a broken heart (yes, Mr. Lucas has his share of on-the-nose implications here). As they drink, they share their thoughts on everything from the philosophy Kierkegaard to her longtime ex-girlfriend Mala (Roxanna Hope). One of Lucas’ most envied specialties is his gift of gab, and this superbly sustained dialogue blends right into another as Adele and Bill take their action home. That results in an alternately horrifying and hilarious bit of awkward, drunken fumbling and a roll not in the hay but in broken glass a clumsily staged scene that’s far better realized by Lucas the playwright than Lucas the director. In any event, this is the happiest moment in the play.

Over the years, we find Adele crashing and burning in a haze of booze and pills (with later repercussions), while Bill remains a willing, non-sober passenger on her runaway train of despair. When he is not, Mala (suffering a mysterious malady that threatens to claim her life) tries to withstand Adele?s zigzag behavior. That’s an apt metaphor for the play itself: sputtering, frustrating, but occasionally quite enlightening. Lucas has chosen his cast wisely. Howard gives Bill a palpable slow-burn intensity, and Hope adds much-needed levity in her nimble portrayal of Mala, a no-nonsense tigress of a woman. But Erbe, in her best stage outing to date, makes Adele not just a neurotic, quippy basket case but a fully lived-in being. By filling in some of Lucas?s conceptual gulfs, she keeps Ode to Joy from turning into Days of Whine and Poses. B