As its title hints, Kunikoff's first play borrows its premise from James Thurber's 1939 short story "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty." Walter Mitty daydreamed of heroics as the United States prepared to enter World War II; here in the self-absorbed Nineties, out-of-the-closet-and-into-whatever Phillip Levine (Joe D. Russell) casts himself in comic R-rated scenarios costarring insatiable imaginary lovers (Ellen Lee and Derrick Petersen); he hopes to alleviate the boredom of his twelve-year relationship with steady, reliable Jonathan (Richard Marlow). Talks with his lesbian best friend Susan (Lori Dolan) and misinterpreted sessions with his therapist (also played by Ellen Lee) convince Phillip to go for it in real life, so he resurrects his old alter ego, disco devil Cha Cha. Eventually a lascivious Phillip finds he must choose between Rollerblading boy hunts or a fulfilling home life with Jonathan.

Despite its hip gay trappings, Kunikoff's play aims for mainstream acceptance by presenting the audience with nothing riskier than what can be seen on television's sanitized sitcoms. For example, although Phillip never states that he is bisexual, the inclusion of a woman in his fantasies gives the comedy a pronounced heterosexual slant. And in presenting promiscuity as a cure for midlife crisis, the script indulges in more network family-hour fiction: No one ever mentions AIDS. Previous works such as Paul Rudnick's Jeffrey, Harvey Fierstein's Safe Sex, and Terrence McNally's Love! Valour! Compassion! poignantly created comic releases for our fears concerning AIDS. This comedy, with its emphasis on escapism and its denial of today's dating paranoia, delivers a fantasy more outrageous than those of its inventive protagonist.

Unlike the young immortals in Barracudas (who also live in an epidemic-free world), the middle-aged characters in The Secret Loves of Cha Cha Levine should know better. In reality, Cha Cha would have retired his dancing shoes, not because the disco had closed down but because the footwear wasn't appropriate attire at friends' memorial services. Then there are Phillip's daydreams, which never vary even though his aspirations change; the playwright misses an opportunity to provide a compelling counterpoint to Phillip's "real" life. With better intentions than skills, the hard-working actors can't make up for the script's shortcomings. Russell portrays Phillip as a whining child who changes the object of his desires but never changes himself. As his patient lover, Marlow imbues Jonathan with recognizable humanity, but in the end he loses our sympathy with an offensive, limp-wristed portrayal. Without any scripted clues, Dolan enacts the lesbian Susan as if she were an L.L. Bean model striking masculine poses, while Petersen confines his stud-muffin role to strutting around in black vinyl pants. The most heroic effort to enliven the proceedings comes from Lee, who adopts a diverting variety of accents and attitudes as Phillip's heterosexual playmate and therapist.

In addition to struggling with the formidable job of creating three-dimensional characters from a cartoon-strip script, the cast also contended with a change of director ten days into the rehearsal process, a situation that left Public Theatre executive director Vince Rhomberg to captain a sinking ship. If he spotted the play's obstacles, he failed to maneuver the production around them. And Cristopher Slavin's triptych set -- coffee nook, bedroom, and restaurant -- seems ill-conceived: When Phillip and Jonathan go to the restaurant, instead of staying in that area of the set the actors inexplicably drag the table into the bedroom and play the scene sitting on the bed.

Despite their many flaws, Barracudas and The Secret Loves of Cha Cha Levine are training grounds for their casts, creative teams, and playwrights. They also underscore the fact that developmental theater is a risky business for both producers and patrons -- you pay your money and you take your chances.

Barracudas. Written by Robert Coles; directed by Michael Francis; with Liz Dennis, Chris Vicchiollo, Carlos Rodriguez, and Jim Tommaney. Through April 27. For information call 531-6083.

The Secret Loves of Cha Cha Levine. Written by Robert Kunikoff; directed by Vince Rhomberg; with Joe D. Russell, Ellen Lee, Richard Marlow, Derrick Petersen, and Lori Dolan. Through April 27. For information call 954-568-2243.

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