Harry Kondoleon may not be the only playwright who would begin an antic comedy with a moan; any of his fellow surrealists might well do likewise. But surely he’s the only one who would expect that moan to stand for a world in pain—and still insist that it get a laugh.

Kondoleon’s characters—from the vulturelike lovebirds in Christmas on Mars to the suicidal poet in Self-Torture & Strenuous Exercise to the bitchy, AIDS-addled hero of Zero Positive—have always faced down anguish with jokes. Often cruel ones. Laughter is a curative in Kondoleon’s plays, but like most medicines, it leaves a bitter aftertaste. When the playwright is in a Noel Coward mood, as he was in The Fairy Garden, start looking for severed heads in the ice bucket. When he’s feeling sitcom-ish, as in The Vampires, expect one-liners about shooting heroin (“mood-changing needlepoint”) and the underside of the American Dream. It’s almost as if he takes his cue from the way we generally describe hilarity—that we groan at puns, scream with laughter, and laugh ’til it hurts. Where other comics exorcise pain, Kondoleon is likelier to dissect it. Give him a moan, and he assumes it hides a jest.

In Half Off, which is receiving its world premiere at Woolly Mammoth, the moaner is Cody (Jennifer Selby Albright), a precocious 17-year-old who has just returned home with her little brother, Buddy, from the funeral of their bohemian parents. A good cry would seem to be appropriate, but Cody’s moans aren’t those of grief. Rather, they have the hiccuping rhythm of sexual pleasure building to orgasm. Her expression, as she sits motionless at center stage, is one of utter boredom. The sounds she’s making might as well be entirely independent of her.

In fact, they are neither emotion nor defense mechanism, but art. Moaning is Cody’s chief talent. She’s planning to make a career of it, providing voice-overs for porno films, once Mr. Astro (Michael Willis), a pornographer friend of her parents, arrives to take care of her. Buddy (Andrew Friedman) is also hoping Mr. Astro will help him get started in show-biz. His rendition of his own composition, “My Fly Is Open (Don’t Try to Close It),” at the funeral was a sort of audition.

Their plans, however, are complicated by the arrival of a pair of alcoholic aunts who lay siege to the household, hoping to give their own lives meaning by moving in and caring for the kids. Aunt Libby (Loretto McNally) is a Bible-thumping people-hugger, whose 12-step diatribes about her beloved Alcoholics Anonymous meetings have long since been memorized by Cody and Buddy. Aunt Suzanne (Nancy Robinette) is a libertine—and a self-described “apostle of the markdown” who can spot a Gucci label at 50 paces, even after her third martini—but who can’t stand to be touched. The two women loathe one another, but they’re more alike than they let on, and they do have the kids’ best interests at heart.

Libby even asks Walter (Grover Gardner), a quiet young man from AA, to drop by as a possible date for Cody—a request that has unexpected repercussions when Walter is revealed to have been at the meetings under false pretenses. He is anonymous (his real name is Ira), but he’s neither alcoholic nor likely to give Cody a tumble. Rather, he’s a gay “half-was” (as opposed to has-been or never-was) playwright in search of material for his next opus. He finds a good deal more than he expected when Suzanne ropes him into writing a musical pageant for Mr. Astro that will show off the kids’ talents, while allowing her and Libby to parade around in marked-down bridal finery.

So far, so funny. Up through intermission, the playwright keeps the tone light as Libby andSuzanne cheerfully tear the scabs off old family wounds. The comedic jabs are personal and largely self-inflicted. If there were ever any doubt that Libby’s 12-step piety is paper-thin, it’s eradicated the moment she uses the phrase, “I want to ask your forgiveness…” as an introduction to a litany of unpleasant thoughts she’s had about Suzanne. And Suzanne’s store-bought sophistication proves every bit as much a veneer. After listening sweetly to Libby’s litany, she purrs, “And now I want to ask your forgiveness…,” before letting rip with a few choice insults of her own.

But in the second half, insult humor gives way to a fairly schematic, black-and-white dissertation on love and homophobia. After staging a pageant in which Cody writhes, Buddy earnestly sings his one-line ditty, “Different Joys for Different Boys,” and their aunts gyrate in hideous, Givenchy-by-way-of-Fellini bridal gowns, Kondoleon reveals his real purpose in bringing these people together by introducing an altogether new conflict. Mr. Astro turns out to be a bigot—“I’ve always hated faggots,” he snarls at Walter—while Buddy turns out be gay. In fact, the lad has a crush on Walter, and in a quietingly tender scene, he requests a kiss.

This sequence, which is easily the evening’s most touching and effective, is also its least integrated. The emotions seem to come out of nowhere, and the sentiments to have very little to do with what went on in the first act. Nor are matters helped when the playwright gooses the play back into a more antic mode. The pornographer’s refusal to watch Buddy and Walter kiss is met with as bald a statement of the play’s message as anyone could hope for: “You will watch it, and approve it, and applaud it,” he’s told. And when he doesn’t, he undergoes a well-deserved but dopey punishment ritual.

Director Howard Shalwitz, who has worked with Kondoleon through several drafts of the play, seems aware that there’s still work to be done. Kondoleon has been living with AIDS for the last five years and was ill enough while the play was in development that he was unable to come to Washington to see it, which doubtless explains part of the problem. You can hear the playwright struggling to sum up—not just a play, but a career—and in so doing, he crams altogether too much in. The ending feels inconclusive: an unfocused plea for tolerance and love. And there are even some lapses that actually undercut the play’s message. (It’s a mistake to bring up age issues: Cody points out that she’s underage and that Astro’s been corrupting a minor, yet Buddy is even younger than she is.)

Still, the Woollies have approached the evening with their customary surrealistic finesse.Robinette, who’s a past master at Kondolean hysterics, makes Suzanne a hoot, while Gardner, who always seems to find a central calm in characters who are losing their bearings, is eloquently shy as Walter. Willis even manages to find some charm in the evening’sporno-pushing fall guy. Jane Schloss Phelan’s costumes are character-revealing, and in the case ofSuzanne’s more outré bargain-bin finds, occasionally uproarious. Joe B. Musumeci Jr.’s living room/art-studio setting isn’t much more than a collection of jokes about bad art, but it’s wide open and airy enough to let the play breathe.

What it can’t do, and what the production itself can’t seem to manage, is hold together all the wild notions that Kondoleon has whirling in his mind at the mo ment. There’s no more fecund imag ination at work in American drama, but in the rush to get this show on the boards, his wit appears far more scattered than it should.

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