STONEHAM — For the first several frames of “Last Night at Bowl-Mor Lanes,’’ the comedy by Weylin Symes appears to be setting up the pins for an in-depth exploration of the odd-couple kinship and shared history between a pair of 70-something friends and bowling rivals named Ruth and Maude.
But about midway through the premiere at Greater Boston Stage Company — where Symes is the producing artistic director — “Last Night at Bowl-Mor Lanes’’ is undone by an ill-advised detour into a subplot that ultimately leaves too many of those pins standing. (Which brings us to the end of our bowling metaphors, and not a moment too soon.)
Still, even a casual bowler can see that Symes, director Bryn Boice, and scenic designer James J. Fenton have gotten the atmospherics right. Fenton’s set is a spot-on simulacrum of a stuck-in-the-1950s bowling alley, from the jukebox in the corner to the overhead “Bowl-Mor’’ sign with the “M’’ dangling upside-down to the row of multicolored bowling balls lined up on a rack.
Boice also got the casting of the leads right: Ruth and Maude are played by Nancy E. Carroll and Paula Plum, twin treasures of Boston theater who long ago earned, and still deserve, the adjective “inimitable.’’ The adjective “Last Night at Bowl-Mor Lanes’’ tries too hard to earn is “heartwarming,’’ but there is genuine poignancy here as well.
The comic byplay between Carroll’s starchy Ruth and Plum’s freewheeling Maude likewise develops a pleasing rhythm, though it seldom soars to the heights Carroll and Plum reached a decade ago playing middle-aged Catholic sisters coping with a zealous young evangelical missionary in Evan Smith’s “The Savannah Disputation’’ at SpeakEasy Stage Company.
The story of “Last Night at Bowl-Mor Lanes’’ is set in motion when Ruth and Maude break into the titular establishment the night before it is slated to close, eventually to be replaced by a Walmart. Determined to finally decide the winner in a rivalry that extends back a half-century, they proceed to bowl a few frames while conversing and quarreling about their familial and social circles (who is dating whom, who is gay, who has a gambling problem) as well as random subjects like Tom Brady’s fitness app.
In the interplay between Ruth and Maude, Symes demonstrates a fairly steady grasp of the complicated dynamics of a friendship sustained over decades. Caroll and Plum make us believe in that friendship. Nobody, and I mean nobody, does grouchy better than Carroll, while Plum can and does make you laugh just by huffing and puffing her way through the exertions of a septuagenarian putting on a pair of bowling shoes. Both actresses also subtly convey the hints of a sadness that is lurking, one layer down, in both Ruth and Maude.
But “Last Night’’ starts to grow wobbly after the arrival of bowling alley owner Ed (Arthur Gomez, in a performance that is too effortful by half), and the play almost grinds to a halt when the focus subsequently turns to a conflict between Carroll’s Ruth and her adult daughter, Charlene, played by Ceit Zweil, who acquits herself pretty well in a one-note role. (So does Isabella Tedesco as Charlene’s 13-year-old daughter, Teddy.)
These protracted scenes have the effect of sidelining Plum, which is never a good idea and is particularly unwise in this instance, since it is she who generates much of the production’s spiky energy.
More broadly, it alters the emphasis and the fundamental balance of “Last Night at Bowl-Mor Lanes.’’ Ruth and Maude, two fiercely individualistic women, end up being largely defined by children and husbands, when the more compelling relationship in this play, the one that matters most to us in the audience, is their own durable bond.
LAST NIGHT AT BOWL-MOR LANES
Play by Weylin Symes. Directed by Bryn Boice. Presented by Greater Boston Stage Company, Stoneham, through Sept. 29. Tickets $47-$57, 781-279-2200, www.greaterbostonstage.org