PORTLAND — “You stole my life,” says one character to another in Lionel Goldstein’s “Halpern & Johnson,” the latest offering from the Portland Stage Company. Fighting words? Almost. But the two senior gentlemen named in the title are a decade or so beyond where that would prove much.

There is plenty of verbal sparring in this two-character play directed by David Ellenstein. Though the audience may “get” the message early on, there’s enough humor and touches of melancholy to carry one through to the somewhat improbable final scene.

The story begins at a graveside, where Joseph Halpern, played by Robert Grossman, is saying his final goodbyes to his wife, Florence. Into the picture comes Dennis Johnson, played by Jonathan McMurtry, a seeming interloper carrying flowers, which Halpern points out are inappropriate for a Jewish grave.

The comedic strand of the production is quickly established as the men uneasily feel each other out in an off-kilter question-and-answer sequence. Eventually, it is established that Johnson, unbeknownst to Halpern, had a long relationship with Florence that began as a romance but retreated into friendship when he could not marry her because of their different faiths.

The scene shifts to a park (a rather nice set by Marty Burnett) where the men meet to hash out exactly what’s been going on for the past 50 years. Halpern, who gets most of the good lines in the play, goes through an anguished process, lightened by comic interludes, in coming to terms with Johnson’s revelations. He then adds a few of his own.

At Sunday’s matinee, Grossman all but stole the show with his cock-eyed takes and comebacks as Johnson revealed what Halpern never knew.

McMurtry, whose Johnson in the early going came on as borderline creepy in his insistence on setting the record straight, gradually suggested his character’s softer side. The truths that both characters discover through comparing lives that might have been to those that (they thought) were is what gives the play that bit of substance to chew on after the lights come up.

One almost thinks that the absent character Florence could probably have put it all in a greater perspective for us. But she’s gone, if not forgotten.

Steve Feeney is a freelance writer who lives in Portland.


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