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Parts don't add up in 'Permanent Whole Life'

Somewhere inside of Zayd Dohrn's ''Permanent Whole Life" there's a good play trying to emerge.

But is it a Mamet-ian indictment of capitalism, centered on the insurance industry?

Or a Wasserstein-ish contemplation of Judaism and assimilation?

Or an Orton-esque black comedy with a twist? (Dohrn calls his play ''A Shvartze Comedy.")

These aren't mutually exclusive dramatic categories, but here they merely coexist rather than coalesce. The writing is fine; the dialogue between the play's two insurance salesmen and the women in their lives never flags in this breezy two-hour production at Boston Playwrights' Theatre. Dohrn, though, comes across as a shopper trying out different wardrobes rather than a self-confident dresser making a strong presentation.

''Permanent Whole Life," which refers to a kind of insurance annuity, starts out in David Mamet territory, with one older fellow, Mort Golman, lecturing his young associate, Henry Kohl, about the treachery of women and the beauty of an insurance industry that allows agents to so easily withhold money that people think is coming to them.

If you thought Mamet could be glib, though, he has nothing on Dohrn, whose indictment of insurance companies rests on stereotypes about the sleaziness of insurance salesmen. Mamet, at least, earns his satirical stripes with the outrageousness of his dialogue or the development of his themes.

Mort, who is even sleazier than Mamet's salesmen in ''Glengarry Glen Ross," is passionate about Jewish tradition, congratulating Henry on marrying a member of the tribe. Mort's marriage with an Italian woman failed, at least in his mind, when she had no idea how many Jews died in the Holocaust.

What's Dohrn getting at here? Is Mort a hypocrite for looking to Judaism for moral grounding even though he's an utterly rotten human being? Or does Dohrn think that Judeo-centrism is part of that rotten-ness? Or is everything merely undifferentiated grist for Dohrn's mill?

Ken Baltin has a knack for playing these big, loud, over-the-top types, and he's certainly the center of attention in this stylish production under Wesley Savick's direction. Whether he's obnoxiously hectoring Henry (Gabriel Kuttner) or putting the moves on a client by pretending that his wife is dead, Mort is the prototypical dirty rotten scoundrel you love to hate.

That's part of the problem. Mort is way too broad a caricature to dominate the play, having its first professional production here, as he does. Henry is the more interesting character as he tries to make ends meet, tend to his pregnant wife, and lead an ethical life, but his part is seriously underwritten. He's too downtrodden to make his sudden transformation at the end much more than a gimmick. Henry's wife, Ava (Lisa Morse), and Susan, the woman Mort is victimizing (Stacy Fischer), also seem more like sounding boards than fully drawn characters.

Richard Wadsworth Chambers provides his usual sharp set, here a modernistic, steel-rimmed collection of furniture, in which a table in one scene becomes a coffin in the next. Perhaps it's a little too sleek for a play highlighting such a throwback as Mort. But then, so much of the play mixes disparate elements that it hardly matters.

Nothing is permanent and nothing is whole in this world. That's part of Dohrn's point. He just needs to be clearer about it.

Ed Siegel can be reached at

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