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STAGE REVIEW

'Candy and Dorothy' earns its wings

WELLFLEET -- What if Catholic activist Dorothy Day met transgendered Warhol groupie Candy Darling in heaven? Given the premise, any competent sketch writer could come up with half the lines in ``Candy and Dorothy." It's what David Johnston does with the other half that makes his play worth seeing.

The premise itself is amusing enough, especially with the Frank Capra twist: Candy is Dorothy's caseworker and, like Clarence in ``It's a Wonderful Life," she must help her client if she's to earn her wings. Well, ``not exactly wings," as Candy tells Dorothy, but a GR-7 rating in the playwright's celestial bureaucracy. ``It's more of an administrative clearance. And a wardrobe allowance."

You can take it from there -- the contrast between Candy's glamorous gowns and Dorothy's prim sweaters, Dorothy's moral outrage and Candy's camp outrageousness, Candy's glittering artifice and Dorothy's glowing authenticity. Fortunately, though, after threatening to settle into a one-joke evening, ``Candy and Dorothy" goes off in a more interesting direction by getting out of heaven and back down to the Lower East Side, where both women once lived.

They're not there to revisit Warhol's notorious Factory or the offices of the Catholic Worker, the crusading newspaper Day founded. (``Co-founded," as Dorothy modestly corrects a heavenly interviewer.) They're there because of Tamara, a confused, intelligent young woman whom Dorothy feels driven to help -- to save, even, possibly from herself.

``The bright ones are the ones who can be dangerous," Dorothy explains to Candy. Even before Johnston lays out the history behind that remark, we can see that it's as much about Dorothy's life as about Tamara's.

What makes all this work is not so much the ideas, true as they are -- love is what matters, we each need to find our own genuine selves, it's a wonderful life -- but Johnston's willingness to be at once playful and serious about them.

In this he's abetted by the terrific Vince Gatton, re - creating his Drama Desk-nominated performance as Candy. (The play is here between its off- off-Broadway debut and a scheduled off-Broadway run.) Gatton makes Candy far more than a strutting drag queen, and even more than a strutting-drag-queen-with-a-heart-of-gold. His Candy is smart as well as sweet, and she's more than a match for Florence Phillips's dignified but impassioned Dorothy.

In the tricky role of Tamara, Nell Gwynn sometimes falls into the New York-neurotic cliche, but mostly she makes the neurosis both believable and funny. Robert Kropf provides sensitive support as the bartender she's drawn to, and the theater's producing artistic director, Jeff Zinn, has fun with the small role of Tamara's pinheaded psychiatrist. Even with only a minimal set, thriftily designed by Robert Monaco, the cast persuades us that we're in Manhattan. Or heaven, depending.

``Candy and Dorothy" doesn't bear too much heavy analysis, particularly in certain lapses of logic. (If, as we're told, Candy chose Dorothy as her client, why is she initially confused about who she is? If bartender Sid can see the heavenly visitors, why does he at first react as if he can't?) But it's lively, especially under the light directorial hand of Kevin Newbury, and its heart is in the right place. All in all, it's a wonderful riff.

Louise Kennedy can be reached at kennedy@globe.com.

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