A breezy entertainment on serious themes, Larry Gelbart and Craig Wright's "Better Late" explores love, divorce, aging and death with a mature sensibility and a decidedly mainstream comedic tone. Premiering at Northlight Theater outside Chicago, and boasting relishable performances from stage vets John Mahoney and Mike Nussbaum, the show manages a collection of balancing acts to mostly pleasing effect.

A breezy entertainment on serious themes, Larry Gelbart and Craig Wright’s “Better Late” explores love, divorce, aging and death with a mature sensibility and a decidedly mainstream comedic tone. Premiering at Northlight Theater outside Chicago, and boasting relishable performances from stage vets John Mahoney and Mike Nussbaum, the show manages a collection of balancing acts to mostly pleasing effect. It’s light but not slight, smart but not cynical, and while it doesn’t yet generate great guffaws or complete emotional involvement, it’s always diverting and admirably unsentimental.

In seven two- and three-character scenes, all set in Los Angeles and playing out in less than 90 minutes, “Better Late” focuses on a triangle composed of former actress Nora (Linda Kimbrough), her not-always-faithful husband of 25 years Lee (Mahoney), and ex-husband Julian (Nussbaum), who has recently suffered a stroke.

A woman with decades of refined expertise in orchestrating familial decisions, Nora gains Lee’s exasperated consent to take Julian into their home while he recovers, just until he can sell his condo and move into an assisted-living facility.

Although plenty of bedpan humor could be mined in this situation, Gelbart and Wright demonstrate enormous restraint and greater thematic ambition. After Lee chauffeurs Julian from the hospital while being berated for “stealing” his wife some quarter-century ago, the men avoid each other, and Lee’s frustration with the situation boils over rapidly.

In director BJ Jones’ fluid, spare production, there’s no question the occasional flare-ups are the most fun, and it’s hard to leave not wanting more than a scene-and-a-half of Mahoney and Nussbaum together. But this remains mostly a mellow, thoughtful work, examining various choices the two men have made, and their attempts to pass along any acquired wisdom to Nora and Julian’s son Billy (Steve Key), who is dealing with his own marital issues.

Gelbart and Wright are both gifted with the one-liner, but the most successful comic moments are in fact not so much the artful zingers as character-driven beats that reveal the undercurrents of emotional complexity at work.

For the terrific Nussbaum, it’s when he first speaks to Nora on the phone in a voice far frailer than the one he uses with Lee, which reinforces Lee’s belief that Julian is manipulating Nora, exploiting her sympathy and long-held guilt at having left their marriage.

For Kimbrough, whose Nora manages to be both controlling and likable at once, it’s the clear glee beneath her surface expression of empathy when Lee’s sometime mistress gets bad reviews for the play she’s doing.

Mahoney gives a dominating yet purposefully unflashy performance. He gets easily the biggest laugh of the play simply by exposing Lee’s somewhat desperate desire not to confront the inevitable future when he rails against Julian for being “a walking sneak preview of death.” The situation may be straining Lee’s marriage, but just as importantly, it’s also forcing him to confront his own inevitable demise.

Not all the thematic layers currently come together into a deeper whole, although great potential remains with further work. The fact that Lee, a composer, is supposed to be writing an elegy seems like it should be felt more in the fabric of the story than it is now.

And aside from Lee, the characters all need more texture. Nora is really the pivotal figure in the triangle, but the scenes currently feel first and foremost focused on the guys. And Billy remains a walking facial tic of a character, there primarily to hear others tell him he should learn from their mistakes.

But there’s no questioning the commercial appeal of this show. It skates along an elegant surface while acknowledging the deeper waters below.

Better Late

Northlight Theater, Skokie, Ill.; 342 seats; $55 top

Production

A Northlight Theater presentation of a play in one act by Larry Gelbart and Craig Wright. Directed by BJ Jones.

Creative

Set, Jack Magaw; costumes, Rachel Laritz; lighting, JR Lederle; original music and sound, Rob Milburn, Michael Bodeen; projections, Stephan Mazurek; production stage manager, Laura D. Glenn. Opened, reviewed April 9, 2008. Runs through May 11. Running time: 1 HOUR, 25 MIN.

Cast

Lee - John Mahoney Nora - Linda Kimbrough Billy - Steve Key Julian - Mike Nussbaum

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