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A man, a bird - and the winsome pair who play them - yield a useful message

24th Street Theatre, which specializes in productions designed to engage both children and their parents, is presenting the U.S. premiere of “Man Covets Bird” by the Australian playwright Finegan Kruckemeyer.

"Our logic is that if kids are introduced to cutting-edge theatre in childhood, then they'll become theatregoers as adults," explain the company's directors, Jay McAdams and Debbie Devine, in the play's program, adding: "If it bores adults, then it's not good enough for kids either."

Cross-generational appeal is a holy grail of the entertainment industry. Movies have found a remunerative strategy: adorable visuals that sweeten heavy themes ("Up") or snarling cynicism ("Shrek").

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Theater for young audiences, in contrast, traditionally more cautious about tone, has a reputation for peppy blandness. The 24th Street Theatre's production last year of "Walking the Tightrope," a play for children about death, successfully challenged that cliche.

This follow-up, "Man Covets Bird," also deals with loss, but on a more allegorical level. It's never entirely clear whether the story of friendship between a man and a bird is meant to be taken literally or as a metaphor; there's room for both interpretations, but some viewers may find the uncertainty coy or even irritating. 

Andrew Huber plays the eponymous Man, who narrates his own story in the third person while acting it out. The original script has a cast of one, but director Debbie Devine has added a second performer, Leeav Sofer, who with the help of various instruments and charming cartoon video projections by Matthew G. Hill, takes on the role of the Bird.

Sofer also composed the haunting and jazzy music the two performers sing and play on keyboard, clarinet and guitar.

Huber exhibits a robust physicality as he leaps across the stage; Sofer moves with a pleasing economy, occasionally tilting his head in a subtly birdlike way.

The two are always working together on the minimal set on some task or another, moving ladders and video projectors, handing each other instruments, dancing, harmonizing. Their warm, efficient rapport as they create this made-up world is charming to watch. Their timing, as they interact with the videos and Cricket S. Myers’ characteristically nuanced and rich sound cues, feels effortless.

The play, in contrast, moves at a leisurely, indirect pace, in often murky and whimsical language: It never quite alights on a single style or plotline, preferring to flutter about and touch down from time to time.

The Bird is not introduced until late in the proceedings, quite abruptly, after a long and ultimately irrelevant segment about the Man's relationship with his parents.

The Bird's character and motives remain sketchy even after he and the Man decide that they belong together. He spends the next eight years living in the Man's coat pocket, singing to him, as the Man works in a factory apparently left over from the early days of the Industrial Revolution, where he pushes a single button over and over again -- a poet's vague, horrified notion of work.

The same poetic imagination finds beauty in discarded receipts and abandoned ice-cream trucks, random-seeming imagery that can't quite hold up the allegorical weight it is asked to bear. (Why eight years, for example?)

But if the characters feel underwritten and the fable occasionally strained and clunky despite the winsome performances, the play's message is ultimately valuable:

Life proceeds in fits and starts, through long periods of tedium interrupted by mysterious change. Although a person may never feel as though he or she is on the right path, a courageous or generous act occasionally results in a moment of grace.

Not a bad thing to learn at any age.

“Man Covets Bird,” 24th Street Theatre, 1117 W. 24th St., Los Angeles. 3 and 7 p.m. Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays. Ends Nov. 22. $10-$24. (213) 745-6516 or www.24thstreet.org. Running time: 1 hour, 15 minutes.

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