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Trying to relate

Relations Unknown proves you can pick your family

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Playwright Topher Payne might be onto something by setting Relations Unknown in Atlanta, beyond the superficial fun of spotting references to Midtown landmarks like the Caribou Coffee on Piedmont and Monroe.

Playing through Nov. 19, the Process Theatre Company's comedy sets out to explore the limitations of conventional relationships and the need to create surrogate families, which seems especially appropriate here. Atlanta, with its huge transplant population and an ambivalent attitude toward its own history, isn't always the most conducive place to sink roots. Relations Unknown looks at how disowned homosexuals, social outcasts and grown-up orphans forge new bonds, from civil unions to offbeat reproductive partnerships. But though Payne sprinkles the play with snappy patter, Relations Unknown overworks a fairly modest patch of thematic ground.

A flow chart would best represent the characters' connections, but the action centers around a gay couple: young exhibitionist Chris (Rob Bullard) and older, long-closeted Owen (Dan Balmer). Their circle expands to include high-strung Shep (Larry Davis) and self-absorbed aerobics instructor Narissa (Michelle Rivera) when Chris reveals that he has lymphoma. (Payne's own successful bout with cancer inspired the writing of the play.)

At times, Relations Unknown succumbs to medical melodrama, but the maudlin moments don't invalidate the tense dynamics. When Owen argues with Chris' small-town, conservative mother, Dorothy (Betty Mitchell), over who's genuinely closer to Chris and most deserving to execute his wishes, the play resembles a smaller-scale version of the public feud between Terry Schiavo's parents and her husband.

More often the play strives to be frothy and witty: When would-be sperm donor Shep tells Narissa that he'll get $60 each time he makes a donation, she replies, "Then you're not so much a sperm donor as a sperm vendor." But too often the actors, directed by Process Theatre artistic director DeWayne Morgan, simply play at the level of the jokes without conveying the motivations going on below the surface.

The oddball role of Ms. Eckles (Marcie Millard), a "patient care technician" at a fertility clinic, embodies Relations Unknown's strengths and weaknesses. Like one of Christopher Durang's sunny lunatics, she energizes her scenes, revealing no sense of propriety and an abiding faith that life's answers can be found in the Harry Potter books. But despite Millard's amusing performance, the character feels more like a wisecrack delivery system than a real person the others would willingly spend time with.

Similarly, it's easier to buy Narissa as an angry exercise addict than a Jewish African-American, no matter how many Yiddish slang words she drops. The play gives her complexities a short shrift. Ironically, the most paradoxical role makes the most sense. Lily Yancey Miller brings such comedic earnestness to Lou that we accept her as a foul-mouthed lesbian Jesus freak. With Lou's divine mission to give home-grown marijuana to chemo patients, her earthy manner and spiritual bent come together. Lou's obsession with angels, like the play's use of a dying, gay "life force" character, makes Relations Unknown feel like a holdover from the 1990s.

Process Theatre bills Relations Unknown as the play's second world premiere -- Payne says he's rewritten "three-quarters" of the play since its debut in 2003. At about two-and-a-half hours, the script cries for more tweaking. The characters talk -- and talk -- about the paradox that we're all alone yet we're all connected, or the need to take risks to lead a full life until the play soldiers on far past its natural resolution.

When, for instance, the women take Dorothy to a gay bar for no good reason but laughs, Relations Unknown feels like a patient being kept on life support too long. Perhaps the most difficult, if inevitable, part of any relationship is knowing when to let go.

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