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Superior writing, great chemistry power O'Connell & Co.'s 'Kathy & Mo'

Permanently bookmarked in my web browser is a YouTube clip of Kathy Najimy delivering a short monologue. She plays an adorably eccentric woman from New York City, decorated in funky eyewear, who shares the news of her nephew’s coming out. She’s your favorite relative, the one who tells you secrets about your parents and slips you a $5 bill when hugging. She loves you, no matter what.

But in 1991, she’s concerned for you. This is a time, remember, when speaking lovingly of a gay relative was something you hushed discreetly, the way well-intentioned people gossip. She’s rightfully concerned, given the AIDS epidemic. She wants you to know, no matter what, that you’re safe in her bosom.

Najimy’s performance has always stayed with me. It’s on my phone, in my pocket, wherever I go. I watch it from time to time. This is the aunt every gay or disenfranchised person deserves, the one that makes them cry tears of joy. What a treasure.

It’s just one of the many incredible encounters in “The Kathy & Mo Show,” the celebrated evening of scenes written and performed by Najimy and Mo Gaffney. It won raves in the 1990s for its outspoken feminism, LGBTQ hospitality and exquisite comedy. It played around the country and on HBO.

A lovely revival with two of Buffalo’s leading comedic actresses — Mary Kate O’Connell and Pamela Rose Mangus — is now playing in Shea's Smith Theatre in a production from O’Connell & Company. Victoria Pérez directs with a loving hand and deft craft. It feels fresh and new, after all these years.

This program blends pieces from the show’s two installations, 1991’s “Parallel Lives” and 1995’s “The Dark Side,” with other updates made in 2005. It’s all still relevant, of course. Feminist outrage is still warranted, and LGBTQ rights are still on the line. (Look up Gaffney’s speech at a 2002 women’s rights rally for further evidence of her spectacular writing.) Once again, these characters need to be heard, and O’Connell and Mangus are a perfect pair to deliver them.

They are, in many ways, Buffalo’s own Kathy and Mo. All their careers, they’ve played characters that either challenge the status quo, subvert gender politics or merely exhibit what a modern woman can and could look like all under the friendly sheen of entertainment and pleasure. In these roles, they channel Najimy and Gaffney’s carefully written subversiveness like pros.

I’ve never seen O’Connell so enveloped in a character. Her portrayal af Najimy's adoring aunt is beautifully paced, quiet and loud with the most touching balance and devoid of the sparkly veneer she sometimes lacquers on her roles. Here she just is, full of life, take it or leave it.

In a startling monologue about abortion, Mangus exhibits the kind of conviction felt so passionately on both sides of the aisle. She does so with great empathy, too, enough to make you question which side Gaffney’s writing is on. In the end, she’s on the woman’s side — all women.

When they play together, either as adult sisters mourning a grandmother or as gabbing girlfriends negotiating high school, they play as if in a sandbox. Their chemistry is rock solid.

A few missing sound cues on opening night were hard to ignore, as was the need for headset microphones in the first place. Let’s huddle closer to hear these strong indoor voices, and listen more carefully. Let’s remember these stories as if they were told around a campfire, written by wise women before us, bookmarked forever in our pockets.

THEATER REVIEW

“The Kathy & Mo Show”

3.5 stars (out of four)

The revival of a beloved comedy at O’Connell & Company, in Shea's Smith Theatre, 658 Main St., through Jan. 27. Tickets are $30. Call 847-1410 or visit sheas.org.

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