THEATER REVIEW : Pair Fill Out Flimsy 'Friends' : Play is weak, but actors give strong, easy performances as old college buddies.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Robert Koehler writes frequently about theater for The Times

If you're willing to believe that a potential American ambassador to the United Nations is likely to escape to Vermont for a weekend and check up on an old college buddy--and maybe check out of life as well--then you'll probably accept most of what occurs in Lee Kalcheim's play "Friends" at the Little Victory Theatre.

Director Rudy Gaines' cast of Drew Pillsbury as Okie, the ambassador candidate, and Martin Grey as his pal Mel are the magicians here. They so thoroughly put across the sense that taking on these characters was the easiest thing they've done all month, you may very well swallow the play whole.

That's magic for you, but it's still actors' smoke and mirrors in front of what is truly flimsy stuff. Kalcheim not only draws a good deal of his dramatic weight from the old and worn-out Chekhovian device of bringing a rifle onto the stage, but he resolves the play's dilemma with the kind of quick, easy and unearned ending endemic to television--for which Kalcheim also writes (the new "Something Wilder").

Although Mel is a 38-year-old underachiever of pathetic proportions (money for his cabin-style living seems to come solely from a weekly cartoon he draws for The Village Voice), the dilemma here is Okie's. He seems to be running away from his wife, his State Department post--in short, the perceived success that Mel secretly desires.

With a lesser actor than Pillsbury, Okie would seem to be at worst a spoiled complainer, at best a man in an existential fog. Kalcheim inserts a lot of side business and tomfoolery to delay the emotional revelations of Okie, and the delay creates an anticipation with no real payoff. Pillsbury, though, invests every moment with a surface cool that conceals decades of frustration.

Grey is directed by Gaines to come on yackety-yacking in the beginning, and it sets the wrong tone for this guy. Soon, he calms down and establishes an ever-so-gentle comic manner that makes us and Okie at ease. Grey also has the character with the most interesting details: Mel has a lost love and a lifestyle combining low-tech modesty and a taste for gourmet cooking.

The details don't end there, extending to the thoroughly realized Vermont cabin digs (care of designers Bruce and Julie Curtis), and some weather-sensitive lighting by Brian Martin.

"Friends" is substantially a one-act fattened out to two, but oddly the fattening is all actor behavior and ends up being more honest than the substance of the play. Then again, "Friends" may have been a vehicle for Pillsbury and Grey all along; it's hard to see other actors carrying so much of the load so well.

Where and When

What: "Friends."

Location: Little Victory Theatre, 3324 W. Victory Blvd., Burbank.

Hours: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends Oct. 30.

Price: $15.

Call: (818) 841-5421.

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