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'Dedication' is devoted to contrasts

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NEW YORK -- Terrence McNally is a cockeyed realist, a man with his heart in the clouds but his feet on the ground. In plays and musicals as diverse as Corpus Christi, Ragtime, Love! Valour! Compassion! and The Full Monty, he has juggled an altruistic spirit and a flair for the fanciful with a keen sense of life's crueler truths and contradictions.

In McNally's Dedication or the Stuff of Dreams (*** out of four), which opened off-Broadway Thursday at Primary Stages' 59E59 Theaters, the contradictions are as sharp as the flights of fancy are high. We meet a couple, Lou and Jessie, who share an overwhelming love devoid of passion, and who wish to make a dying old woman's property the site of a children's theater. We see that woman, the cantankerous, cancer-ridden Annabelle Willard, evolve from an ogre to a sacrificial lamb to, literally, a fairy godmother.

We're also introduced to a soap-opera-addicted chauffeur, a rock singer fresh out of rehab and a genteel production manager with his own secret. Unlikely bonds are formed and old grievances resolved, or at least smoothed over, en route to an ending that is at once wistful and creepy, sobering and reassuring.

McNally's sometimes sentimental script makes Dedication's disparate characters and themes as accessible as those in one of the fairy tales staged by Lou and Jessie. That is, in part, because the playwright only scratches the surface of big issues such as mortality, fidelity, and fear of mortality and fidelity. But his infectious wonderment and whimsy encourage us, not unlike those children's parables can move their intended audiences, to scratch further.

It doesn't hurt that the cast is led by one of the most reliably entertaining actors on the boards, Nathan Lane. (Don Amendolia (Stepping Out) replaces Lane Sept. 6; the show continues through Oct. 2.) In Lou, Lane has a role that demands more than the comic flair that he will once again bring to Broadway in this fall's revival of The Odd Couple; and the actor flexes his dramatic muscles with ease and, one imagines, a certain gratitude.

An even more established trouper, the marvelous Marian Seldes, makes Annabelle alternately scathing and heartbreaking, while the baby-voiced Alison Fraser makes Jessie quirky and endearing.

Michael Countryman is elegant as the stage manager, and R.E. Rodgers and Miriam Shor are droll as Annabelle's driver and Jessie's pop-star daughter. The latter is a restless hybrid of Chrissie Hynde and Billy Idol improbably named Ida Head. Darren Pettie shows up as Ida's tattooed, Shakespeare-quoting boyfriend.

You won't necessarily recognize any of these creatures among your friends and loved ones. But spend a couple of hours with them and you're bound to feel at least a few pinpricks of truth.

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© Copyright 2004 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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