Christopher Durang’s latest Lulu.

Christopher Durang, whose new play, Sex and Longing, premiered on Broadway last week, is the American theater’s most gleeful blasphemer. Behind the satire and the smut, though, it’s easy to discern the good Catholic schoolboy who trembles, awaiting his punishment–not by God but by God’s deranged, self-appointed executors. Durang’s masterworks, Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All to You (1979), Beyond Therapy (1981), and The Marriage of Bette and Boo (1985), abound in vengeful authority figures: Nuns point guns, priests rape, psychiatrists turn out to be maniacs. The protagonists are at once innocents and sinners (the status of sinner being easier to attain in the Catholic Church than in most other places); they hardly have a prayer of finding happiness, and in Durang’s mind, apparently, neither does he.

Durang has not written a full-length play for the New York stage in eight years, an absence he has attributed to 1) writer’s block, and 2) a decade of dismissive reviews by former New York Times theater critic Frank Rich. (To underline his feelings of excommunication, Durang has labeled Rich’s pronouncements “pontiff-like.”) Whether Rich is to blame or not, the fact that one of the theater’s most scabrously funny writers has felt so hopeless about his prospects is a scandal. That the play with which Durang returns to Broadway is so misshapen and fumbling and ripe for rejection–even by those of us who revere him–is a shame. The fear of being smote seems finally to have scrambled his instincts.

In Sex and Longing (a generic title–I prefer the one for last year’s delicious evening of one-acts, Durang Durang), the playwright opens with Lulu (Sigourney Weaver), a woman spread-eagled on a bed who announces that she must have sex every 15 minutes, and who chants the words “sex and longing” as if they were her mantra. Her gay friend Justin (Jay Goede) needs sex merely every three hours (“I have other interests,” he explains), but the two share a mighty hole at their core. They’re addicts, and in Durang’s upside-down moral universe, that makes them vulnerable, and therefore good. Lulu takes to the street to beg (literally) for ravishment, bumping, at various times, into a senator named McCrea (Guy Boyd); the Rev. Davidson (Peter Michael Goetz), who’s a refugee from Somerset Maugham’s “Rain” and calls Lulu “Sadie Thompson,” exhorting her to live a life of godliness; and Jack the Ripper (Eric Thal), who comes roaring out of Wedekind’s Lulu plays and ends the first act on a dissonant chord of savagery.

Durang is working in two arenas here, but he can’t quite build a bridge between them. The first is private and psychological; the second, in which most of the action unfolds, is a political cartoon. Davidson plots with the senator’s wife, Bridget McCrea (Dana Ivey), to use Lulu’s public conversion to Christ as the centerpiece of a hearing meant to lead, ultimately, to a series of Moral Majority-like constitutional amendments. Hypocrisy and looniness triumph. The reverend has a fetish for chloroform and sex with the now-incapacitated Lulu; the Senate panel consists of inflatable dolls with O-shaped mouths for fellatio; and someone resembling Jesus Christ shows up to pledge allegiance to the Republican Party.

It sounds as if it should be a blast, and the director, Garland Wright, keeps the pedals pumping. Weaver, Durang’s longtime co-conspirator (and the commercial force behind this production), makes a marvelous clown. In the first act, her Lulu is a rouged, floppy-haired rag doll, with a gait that’s a cross between a spring and a slink. Entranced and yet insistent, she moves with the force of a salmon swimming upstream to mate (the image is the playwright’s, not mine). But the actress is marooned in a wheelchair for the subsequent two acts, and the less she gets around, the more the play’s spine seems to soften.

Durang–who has said he doesn’t always know what he wants to write before he sits down at his desk and lets it rip–shifts focus a third of the way through the play. Sex and Longing becomes less about sex or longing or Lulu’s will to fornicate than about the right wing’s attempt to suppress and deny and exploit basic human desires. That’s a worthy subject, but the audience doesn’t go along with it. They want more of Sigourney in her slip yelling, “I’m yummy and I’m available!” The climactic act, in the Senate, grinds on like one of those SaturdayNightLive sketches that won’t catch fire. Durang’s chosen theme comes to feel like a lengthy digression–a tame one, too. That the right is riddled with sexual hypocrisy and that repression fosters psychosis is news only a Catholic schoolboy could find shocking. And the hairpin turns into horror that ring down each of the three act-curtains are weirdly off-key, stabs at a higher allegory. They make you wonder whether, now that we’ve gotten past Woody Allen trying to be Bergman, we’ll have to deal with Durang trying to be Wedekind.

At his most dazzling, Durang doesn’t veer off into such easy sniggers or portentous self-pity. His previous plays have embodied the liberating aspect of the “culture of complaint”; they demonstrate, so painfully that you have to laugh, how dysfunctional families and tyrannical institutions really do screw up children for life. No one cuts so quickly to the lunatic consequences of repression, so that embarrassing truths erupt from people’s mouths like slap-happy strippers out of cakes. Characters reel from one Freudian slip to another and end up on their backs. The lines, absurd as they seem, are the opposite of nonsense. They’re a tougher, more lucid kind of sense, but dressed up in silly costumes.

The Broadway production of Sex and Longing does afford a chance to see Durang acted expertly–lightly enough to maintain a farcical momentum, yet with a realistic subtext, so that the pain is never trivialized. It’s a difficult balance, and one that calls for a new style of American comic acting, as yet unnamed. (American actors tend either to strive for deep psychological subtext or to go for laughs; they don’t quite know how to give comedy the ring of emotional truth.) The production has its spasms of hilarity. The most sustained, in the second act, is a formal drawing-room conversation among Lulu, Davidson, and Mrs. McCrea that’s breathtaking in its deadpan ghastliness.

Largely, this is due to Dana Ivey, whose performance as Bridget McCrea is exactly the kind of complex caricature that sends Durang’s writing rocketing into the stratosphere. She’s the distillation of every starched Republican wife from Pat Nixon to Nancy Reagan to Marilyn Quayle to Liddy Dole (with a soupçon of Margaret Thatcher). “We must pass lawwwws,” she proclaims, and the word becomes a soaring nasal trumpet call to punish all miscreants, the sound of which leaves you feeling like a fox in the face of the oncoming hunt. Watching this loveless matriarch, who’s both stupendously funny and bloodcurdling, you get the evening’s clearest glimpse of what Durang was aiming at: the magnetic pull of moralizing monsters, before whom even the most libidinous among us are like nervous altar boys, waiting for the rod to descend.