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"Us' plays too much for laughs

The Sum of Us is about Harry Mitchell and his only child, Jeff, who seem to get along swimmingly well. At 24, and still living at home with his dad, Jeff is gay _ or "cheerful," as Harry prefers to put it. Jeff's dealings with Harry, a retired widower, are remarkably free of the usual father-son Sturm und Drang, not to mention any trauma over his sexuality. In fact, Harry is so accommodating he encourages Jeff to bring his barroom pickups home to spend the night.

But all is not what it seems to be in this play by David Stevens at American Stage. Harry may be unusually accepting _ "You've been . . . the best dad in the world, I reckon, the fairest, that's a certain fact," Jeff says _ but he's not totally honest about his feelings toward his gay son. Only late in the play do they come out, and then he admits to a woman he's dating that he's disappointed in Jeff.

"Disappointed that he'll never find a girl and settle down. Disappointed that he'll never give me a grandson. Disappointed that my family's name will stop with him. And disappointed because I honestly think he's missing out on something _ wonderful."

Harry's admission of unhappiness about his son's homosexuality calls everything that came before it into question. What, exactly, is the truth about Harry?

Is he the amusingly bitchy fellow in a kitchen apron who dotes on his son like a mother hen _ the very model of unconditional love? Or is Harry just another mossback who can't get over his homophobia?

Unfortunately, Stevens never really plumbs Harry's ambivalence regarding Jeff. Openly gay men and women pose an emotional challenge to their parents, and it can be hard for families to work things out. As directed by John Berglund, The Sum of Us comes close to touching the heart of the matter, but it ends up taking the crowd-pleasing way out. Most people will leave the theater remembering the rough and ready wisecracking between father and son in this often hilarious play, and there's nothing wrong with that. But it could have been a richer experience.

Stevens is best known for Breaker Morant, the Australian film from 1979 whose screenplay he co-wrote. The Sum of Us, which premiered in 1988, is set in Footscray, an industrial suburb of Melbourne. In this macho soccer-crazy, Fosters-guzzling milieu, the "blokes" and "mates" fly fast and furious, and Berglund's cast members have obviously taken a crash course in delivering their lines in a more or less convincing down-under dialect.

"Don't get your knickers in a twist," says Jeff, played by T. Scott Cunningham, in a typical bit of Aussie lingo. Cunningham's Jeff is appealingly direct as a lonely gay plumber, and only occasionally does he slip into an accent that sounds like it belongs not in east Australia but in east Alabama.

Ronald J. Aulgur's Harry dominates The Sum of Us. At times, Aulgur goes way over the top in bringing his character to earthy, freewheeling life. Sweating profusely, his eyes bulging out wildly, dragging on a joint, kicking up his heels to a rock anthem from the '60s, Harry puts youth to shame.

The old man is not incapable of reflection. In mulling over the Mitchell family sexual history, he recalls the lesbianism of his mother, who, after her husband's premature death, lived for 40 years with a woman. "Ah, well," Harry tells Jeff, "it's in the blood; just skipped a generation from my mother to you."

However, Aulgur's comic instincts tend to run amok. The actor usually goes for the laughs and doesn't savor the lines that might have given Harry some depth.

Jeff and Harry sabotage each other's romantic pursuits. After a night at home with the Mitchells, Jeff's prospective boyfriend, a cherubic blond gardener named Greg (Charlie Kevin), flees because having the attentive Harry around is "too domestic," he says. "Sort of makes the atmosphere _ I dunno _ not very sexy."

Harry's courtship of Joyce, whom he met through a dating services, comes to a screeching halt when she discovers Jeff's cache of gay porn magazines. Joyce (C.C. Loveheart) can't accept his homosexuality, even though she has never met him.

"I can't imagine how they can do what they do," she says. "The thought of two men, touching, doing what they do _ or two women _ it makes me _ and I know it's not fashionable, but that doesn't help, it's how I feel, and what I know doesn't help how I feel."

Most of The Sum of Us takes place in a plain setting that befits the digs of a couple of down-to-Earth guys. The final scene moves to an ingeniously devised platform above the main set that doesn't seem worth the trouble.

As is evident from the passionate performance he draws from the cast, Berglund puts his stamp on the play. If bawdy repartee, the killer pot that father and son share around the Christmas tree and a sound track by Steely Dan, Talking Heads and the Doors are any indication of the director's point of view, then it's clear he continues to believe that sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll can change the world.


The Sum of Us

David Stevens' play is at American Stage through March 14; tickets are $16-$20; call 822-8814 in St. Petersburg.