An injudicious case of grand larceny is taking place at Dial Corporate Center's Playhouse on the Park in downtown Phoenix. It might be termed "Crimes of the Art."

The occasion is Phoenix Theatre's production of Beth Henley's 1981 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Crimes of the Heart, and it blatantly steals from the audience any chance to believe what is purported to be happening onstage.

To be sure, despite its distinguished pedigree, Crimes is not an easy play to believe. Henley specializes in extravagant characterization, teetering dangerously on the edge of caricature. The eccentricities of this Southern gothic family are legion, and can become tiresome even when rendered honestly.

Babe has shot her husband, Zach, in the stomach because, as she says, "I didn't like his looks." On the eve of sister Lenny's 30th birthday, which she is forced to celebrate with a single candle on a cookie because no one has bothered to remember this milestone, her horse Billy Boy has been struck by lightning and died. The third sister, Meg, has returned from Hollywood, where her career as a country-western singer has gone down the tubes. She's fresh from the psychiatric ward of L.A. County Hospital.

Muckraking through the sex lives of the sisters, we soon learn that Babe has been having an affair with a 15-year-old black "boy" named Willie Jay, and her husband, Zach, possesses graphic pictures of the couple in flagrante delicto. Lenny's single affair was with a Lonely Hearts Club blind date, a Memphis salesman named Charlie, who doesn't know it was her shrunken ovary that prompted Lenny to end their pathetic liaison. It also turns out that before swinging sister Meg went to California, she caroused all night with a local swain (nicknamed Doc) during hurricane Camille. When the roof of their motel room collapsed, Doc's leg was crushed, requiring a painful round of hospital stays for him, thereby squelching his ambition to become a doctor.

Sound pretty far-fetched? Well, it is. But it is the task of the actors to believe these circumstances, and through their belief, to elicit ours.

Farcical as the circumstances of these weird sisters might seem, Crimes is a richly textured play of multiple dimensions that resonates with a profound depth in which we should recognize an absurdly tragic human condition.

Haunting the play is the suicide of the mother of these three sisters. She not only hanged herself, but she also hanged "that old yellow cat, who was her only friend." This bizarre suicide/cat-ricide attracted the attention of the national media. The sisters, the town, indeed, the entire nation are mystified by one question: Why?

The best anyone has offered to explain the mother's desperate death is, "She had a real bad day." Juxtaposing genuine insight with this comic explanation, Henley finally allows one sister to realize that her mother's murder of the cat was because, unsure of what comes after, she was afraid of dying alone. Beneath a ridiculous surface, Crimes of the Heart is structured on strong emotional moorings. Babe's attempted murder of her husband is based not only on adulterous miscegenation, but on an unfunny history of spousal abuse that her attorney unearths in her defense from hospital records. But accepting the eccentric surface as an invitation to suspend all reality, director Michael D. Mitchell has ignored the darker underpinnings, the ache of the heart that holds the absurdity of the play together, and instead has invoked the style of Charlie's Aunt. Nothing's all that funny about Nicole Simpson's calls to 911, but it chills the blood to imagine the pratfalls this cast might come up with to depict that. The characters stride about their own kitchen without motivation. One sister poses down center on the kitchen tabletop as if she is going to burst into song. Most of the time, the actors are arranged in stiff groupings that pander to the audience like a group of competing standup comics. The fake comedy, which is delivered with the deftness of a sledgehammer, is equaled only by the phony pathos of the fake tears.

The worst of the lot is Billy Forester's grotesque exaggerations as Babe's lawyer, Barnette. Never content to simply mug, Forester contorts his face like Jim Carrey in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, funny enough for the preteen crowd, but appalling in a prize-winning play. Almost his equal in crassness is Ginny Harman's relentless commentary on her character, Chick. Having discovered the little mannerism (by now a clich) that some Southern women point their tongues wickedly, delighting in the taste of an aptly poisonous honey-coated barb, Harman points her tongue on each and every line. As for the sisters, they are sisters in crime in the broadness of their characterizations. Tambra Smith Lamb may be a trifle less mannered than the other two, but they all have reduced their women to the depth of Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, if you can remember that tired old TV turkey. There is one decent performance. Tim McCavitt is so handsome and relaxed as the monosyllabic Doc that it is amazing his simple charm has not shamed the others into emulating his ease. His presence onstage is like a soothing rain on a parched desert. The setting by Thom Gilseth is numbing in its insincerity, and lacks any sense of architectural integrity. The poor scenic design is topped by a lighting design by Randall K. Emery, in which it is impossible to even guess what time of day is being suggested. Mysteriously, the lights dim dramatically for dramatic moments, and then brighten to cheer us up. I wasn't cheered.

But the sets and lights pale in comparison to the sheer horror of Rebecca Y. Powell's ludicrous costumes, as each change of clothes becomes more ugly and inappropriate than the last. The original music by Karren Pell drones on painfully, ineptly recorded and broadcast over a tinny sound system that is clearly the inferior of many a car stereo system pounding down the highways.

I suppose the principal blame for this disaster must be reserved for director Mitchell. As poor as they are, the performances are consistent with the style of the entire production. Mitchell's resume suggests that he ought to know better, and with an eye toward his next venture, The Lion in Winter, we can only hope he can beat this rap with a plea of temporary insanity. I understand that this season Phoenix Theatre dropped the word "Little" from its name. It would take more than a name bob to excise the amateurishness from this particular outing.