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Wry 'Apocalypso!' serves up relationships with a twist

Every so often a production comes along in which each aspect meshes brilliantly: script, cast, staging, and that indefinable aura of uncertainty and excitement that can make theater so compelling. William Donnelly's casually clever ''Apocalypso!," as brought to life by the Rough & Tumble ensemble under Dan Milstein's direction, is just such a show.

Short scenes depict a chain of encounters among an ever-expanding circle of people during that angst-ridden lull between Christmas and New Year's, when the obligatory rituals of conviviality seem a slim defense against the seasonal dying of the light. Here, a barstool philosopher commiserates with a newly separated husband, who's crashing with a seemingly sympathetic friend, who's seeing the estranged wife on the sly, who's mean to her well-meaning sister, who's into sappy self-help books. . . . You get the gist. The low-key exchanges don't beat you over the head with their individual import or ambition, but each has an accretive effect: Before you know it, Donnelly has built a web of relationships full of wry twists -- and packed with potential for humor, the kind that comes at you sideways, instead of in your face.

Gus (R&T veteran George Saulnier III) gets the ball rolling as a schlubby, suds-fueled sage given to grandiose pronouncements -- ''You're missing the crux of my point" -- when not wheedling another round from his tough bartender girlfriend (Judith Austin, appropriately dry). Harry LaCoste plays the booted-out Boone, who morosely assesses his situation: ''Sleeping on a couch, rapidly balding -- this is the state of my life." Marc Frost is Walt, the friend extending sofa privileges, as well as therapizing suggestions (you suspect he may have caught ''Oprah" on occasion) for coping with an overcontrolling significant other; little does Walt suspect where his own covert relationship is headed. Kortney Adams deftly skirts the edge of unlikability as she juggles the two men and cold-shoulders her warmhearted sister (company regular Irene Daly), who finds in tomes with titles like ''The Yes Doctrine" an escape from a fond but distancing husband (Jason Myatt) -- who we'll soon learn has good reason to seem preoccupied.

Walt also has a sister, Dora (enchanting R&T stalwart Kristin Baker), who pops up throughout Act 1 to proclaim beatifically: ''I have a message." With Act 2 comes the revelation of Dora's mission -- or, as Walt surmises, proof she's off her meds. Nuts or not, she's refreshingly outspoken. Maybe her doomsday prediction -- liberally interpreted -- has some merit after all.

This unassuming but delightful play definitely has merit, and it's nicely framed by Ron DeMarco's Mondrianish metal urban skyline and Fred Harrington's interstitial keyboard noodlings, which lend the proceedings an ironic tinge of daytime drama.

Truly, it's such a treat when an ensemble's reach so exactly matches its grasp. Rough & Tumble, now in its ninth season, has distinguished itself from other fringe troupes by offering an unconditional guarantee: If you don't enjoy the performance, you're entitled to a full refund on your ticket.

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