Times Staff Writer

Terry Curtis Fox has written a mildly amusing dark comedy called "Justice" that bounces off the concept of the word in any number of directions. The 21st Street Theatre has produced it with similar zeal. In other words, the production bounces too--sometimes too zealously.

Yuppie attorney Roger Ackerman (Kevin Riley) is a partner in a law firm peopled by lawyers who appear to have baseball, women and fees uppermost in their minds.

The fact that Ackerman's girlfriend Cathy (Carri Patterson) is leaving him and that they're fighting over who gets the TV set is the first act's illustrative adjunct to the unflappable petty corruption of their lives.

Or so it seems. One perceives an office where the upwardly mobile smell a bit rank amid much bantering with a laid-back associate and so-called "friend" (Rif Hutton) whose style is as relaxed and devious as his plan for the mass-merchandising of prepaid divorces to newlyweds, and with a senior partner (William Bufkin) who participates in forms of entrapment, then passes along the lucrative cases to his minions.

Even the aerobics-crazed secretary (Pamela Thompson) and a visiting crook-client (Michael Ewers) insidiously become emblematic of a topsy-turvy society.

When the confrontation between Roger and Cathy narrows in the second act, the play turns more dark than funny. Through Cathy, who seems to be the only one left with a valid perspective on justice, Fox comes to grips with the points he so carefully has been setting up. Cathy provides the balance--the voice of reason--but the play's last line, delivered by a fulminating Roger, seems to leave us little to hang on to: It's as hopeless and black as night.

So for all its comic trappings, "Justice" has a fundamental seriousness. The author wants to warn that, when the moral fabric of a society begins to unravel, justice, like truth, becomes a matter of perception. It can be bent. And under the guise of this "comedy" of divorce (its protagonists may only have been living together, but their "divorce" is real), he illustrates how injury and vindication are all a question of point of view.

Right and wrong have precious little to do with it.

The 21st Street Theatre's production is too uneven to do full justice to the despairing blackness of this play, with Bufkin in need of a more sinister approach and Ewers of a less sinister one (and a much more specific lowlife accent).

Riley handles his various crises with only competent hysteria and Patterson's sobering Cathy conducts herself with somewhat blank if appropriate restraint.

Joe Ivy's direction does not coordinate events for maximum effect. The built-in unevenness of the company fails to allow for a smooth enough integration of the manic mood and manner required of this piece. The intent is clearly there, but not the desired results.

The set by Bufkin and Susan Karmel is adequate. Sound by Ken Quain is fine, but Paul Cutone's dim lights could stand improvement.

Performances at 11350 Palms Blvd. (on the premises of the Windward School) run Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 2:30 p.m. (827-5655 or 391-7131).

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