HARTFORD -- On the surface, Valentina Nrovka is mamushka dearest. She verbally berates her 36-year-old daughter Sophia as ''weak and talentless." She doesn't like her son-in-law, but she thinks even less of the man Sophia wants to leave him for.
But playwright David Hare is not all that interested in mother-daughter dynamics in ''The Bay at Nice," and Estelle Parsons, who plays the haughty Valentina, is not plowing over Joan Crawford territory.
In his 1986 play, which is receiving its first major American production at Hartford Stage, Hare is asking more difficult questions about the function of art and the nature of life. Is the pursuit of happiness the goal, or is there something deeper?
Hare is often considered a polemical writer, which does not give him due credit for the complexity of the central debate he sets up in his plays. In this 75-minute chamber play, set in Leningrad in 1956, Valentina has been called in by the Hermitage to see if she can verify the originality of a painting by Henri Matisse, whom she studied under in Paris.
To her, art is a way of life, a means to a quasi-spiritual end, a dividing line between the elite and the peasants. She is dumbfounded that her daughter continues to paint, even though she is clearly not an artist. She dismisses her work as photography, stating that if you can't paint like Cezanne, you might as well not paint at all.
Much of ''The Bay at Nice," then, is an intriguing, witty debate between going for the gold in life or settling for possibilities. And, Hare being Hare, between the unbounded personal freedom of Paris in the '20s and the ultrabounded communal ideal of Soviet Russia in the '50s.
As in ''Via Dolorosa," his one-man show about his experiences in the Middle East, Hare is not taking a particular side. Our sympathies constantly shift from mother to daughter, and although there seems to be no contest between, oh, hanging around with Matisse or slogging along in Soviet Russia, Valentina becomes an unlikely advocate for responsibility to something larger than yourself, or of having your gruel and eating it, too.
The Hartford Stage production, which closes Sunday, is immaculate. Artistic director Michael Wilson has done fine things with this company. Although this is a fairly static play, Wilson (who also directed), Parsons, and the rest of the actors keep things moving and the design team -- particularly Tony Straiges's set -- gives the eye plenty to feast on. It's set in a museum, but it's no museum piece.
On the downside, while everything about the play is likable, nothing about it is lovable, even Parsons's nuanced stridency. This is the kind of well-made, engaging British play in which every artistic hair is in place -- which makes me wish Hare had mussed it all up a bit more.
Ed Siegel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.