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A fine production of "The Sum of Us," a complex, arresting play by Australian David Stevens, is playing at the New Phoenix Theater under the direction of Joseph Natale. It is a moving and very funny play in itself and the cast does it justice.

Those who have visited the little theater on Johnson Park will recall that it is large enough to hold a decent crowd but is also dark and intimate and a perfect choice in this case. The set is simple, easily altered and appropriate to the working-class Aussie lifestyle it frames. Lighting, too, is simple and direct. Costumes by Monica Martin were unusually well-chosen in accordance with the playwright's intentions. Each actor is at home in his skin and in the persona Martin has helped create, and clothes matter here.

Natale's direction is precise and sensitive. The issues at hand are quite difficult to present and the play's form is unusual in that it involves radical alterations both in time and in the characters' life situations, and an interruptive narration from the characters on stage. The play itself presents an unexpected and perhaps unfamiliar series of relationships that could produce discomfort in the viewer were the show in less capable hands. I say this not because the play deals with the issues of homosexual courtship and a certain level of self-loathing in at least one character, but because the emotional intimacy involved among all the characters, gay and straight, is greater than what we usually encounter on stage.

I don't want to give away too much of the story, so bear with me here. A middle-aged widower (Richard Lambert in a sensitive performance) lives in Sydney with his son Jeff, a young man who is decent, hard-working, a bit adolescent still and lonely. He is a "poofter" -- homosexual -- a fact his father has known and accepted since the boy was 14.

Stevens constructs a family situation that, despite the best of intentions and the decency of both parties, is not quite working out. Dad's effect on Greg, a young man upon whom Jeff has fixed his gaze, is hilarious and unnerving to audience and boys alike, although certainly well-intentioned and sweet.

Lambert embodies the best efforts of a loving and concerned parent -- a dear and decent man, generous in heart and soul -- while Natale allows us to experience his efforts through the eyes of his son. The result is that we laugh and cringe at the same time.

The play is essentially an adult comedy and I did find it very, very funny. It is also a poignant observation of families, loneliness, relationships and the marriage of idiosyncrasies. It has gay themes, but like all good plays it speaks to the particulars in a manner that makes his observations universally applicable.

In the role of Jeff, Scott Stambach offers a measured and engaging performance. He is completely believable and sympathetic -- "KID" writ large from beginning to end.

As Jeff's love interest, Daniel Sheffield first seemed uncomfortable until I realized that this was completely in character. A good-looking, decent but detached boy, he is the object of Jeff's intense crush and of dad's warmly anxious concern.

Monica Martin enters later as Dad's new lady friend and it looks like the whole thing's going to be wrapped up in a happy ending in the old romance department for father and son. But wait -- Stevens has another dingo up his sleeve. Refusing to go for the expected ending once, he moves us ahead in time and serves up a big bite of how life so often actually turns out -- Aiiieeee-e-e! Not that!

The playwright's guts and decency and the excellent cast makes "The Sum of Us" a good start for an evening of discussion about theater and life, though it may be difficult to find the words.

The Sum of Us

Rating:*** 1/2 Australian comedy-drama by David Stevens about a father and his gay son. Directed by Joseph Natale for the New Phoenix Company, with Richard Lambert, Monica Martin, Dan Sheffield and Scott Stambach. Performances continue Friday through Sun day at 8 p.m, through Nov. 1. New Phoenix Theatre on the Park, 95 N. Johnson Park (853-1334).