An embittered and aging tranny named Kemp (Marco Barricelli) comes to visit an old aunt (Olympia Dukakis) on the basis of a letter she sent him saying she's dying. He's her only living relative, and so Kemp, who has the social grace of a tarantula, gives up his minor position in a minor savings and loan to sit vigil in her dusty attic-like room through her death. The twist is that to Kemp's profound frustration, and despite his offers to guide her through the pearly gates, she just won't die.

Writer-director Morris Panych's 1995 two-hander Vigil grapples not so much with mortality as with the curse of being marginal. Who doesn't feel unplugged from the world, or about to be?

The play is almost entirely Kemp's soliloquy; Dukakis' Grace has about a dozen lines. The production hangs on Dukakis' striking body-language responses to Barricelli's gruff attitude and words. That visceral dynamic is electric, almost blowing out the fuse of this low-voltage script.

Among the play's few mysteries is how many morbid jokes at Grace's expense Kemp can get away with: As she's eating her pudding in bed, “Don't eat too much, you won't fit in the box.” Blackout. As she's applying mascara: “Why are you putting on makeup? Why don't you let the mortician do that?”

Ken MacDonald's cluttered, tilted storybook set features a door frame skewed at odds with the wall it's attached to and other surreal touches that might explain Kemp's unreal comic belligerence and insensitivity. Can such a man possibly feel empathy?

Of course he can. If he couldn't, we'd have a searing variation on Samuel Becket's Endgame. Instead, we get the sentimental sensibility of Driving Miss Daisy and On Golden Pond — a schematic and beautifully staged diversion from the darkness it keeps dancing around. —Steven Leigh Morris

VIGIL | By Morris Panych | A production of San Francisco's American Conservatory Theatre, presented by Center Theatre Group at the Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., dwntwn. | Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2:30 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 1 & 6:30 p.m.; through Dec. 18 | (213) 628-2772 |

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