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Love is always something of a trial in Michael T. Folie's "Naked Mole Rats in the World of Darkness." In these eight, brief stories, nobody can quite connect -- or disconnect -- without all sorts of farcical entanglements arising.

By chance, a female cop collars the very guy who ruined her attitude toward men when he stood her up at their high school prom. A boss and his subordinate want desperately to get together, but their lawyers insist everything -- including any potential sex -- be in writing.

Like the furless, subterranean mole rat, these characters are fumbling in the dark. The metaphor comes home in the last, most developed and maybe funniest of these stories. Set at the zoo, the episode has an unhappy commercial art director (Paul O'Hern) -- longing to return to the life of the painter. "Who's happy?" asks his wife (Bess Brown Kregal). "Mole rats are happy!"

Some of Folie's material seems dated, and this return to "pure-art" bit is an example. It doesn't exactly gel with the current state of art and artists (not to mention the 1950ish "adman"). But the playwright does squeeze out a number of amusing sequences and a few killer lines. It was enough to keep the Alleyway Theatre's opening night audience laughing uproariously.

The casting of the play requires four accomplished actors -- O'Hern and Brown Kregal are joined by David R. Avery and Lisa Vitrano -- to play wildly different characters, sometimes in sequential stories. For the most part, these leaps are handled deftly.

Brown Kregal -- even as she muffs some lines and improvises to retrieve uncooperative props -- creates two marvelous characters in Vicki, the aging movie actress, and Barbara, the repulsed wife at the zoo (who has some of the funniest lines in the play).

Vitrano glides effortlessly from tough cop to quibbling wife to office nerd. Her turn as a sexily indolent pudendum is hilarious, and if it can be said about such a role, subtly done. It is the perfect complement to Avery's wacky rendition of -- what else? -- a very needy penis.

Avery can be excellent, but not when he's doing his dreadful "swami" accent. He might also ease off on the Adam Sandler sound-alike routine. O'Hern is steady and sure as the regular guy about to enter an imagined crisis. But sometimes what was needed was just a bit more fire than he was able to provide. Overall though, under Kevin Stevens' capable direction, the Alleyway cast makes what could have been only a mildly amusing foray into the light absurd a very pleasurable evening of entertainment.

Naked Mole Rats in the World of Darkness
Rating: ** 1/2
Micharl T. Folie's eight comic vignettes directed by Kevin Stevens.
Through Feb. 20 in Alleyway Theatre, One Curtain Up Alley. 852-2600.

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