Off-Broadstreet Theater opens its 23d season with Israel Horovitz’s "Park Your Car in Harvard Yard." The play, often referred to as a comedy, does indeed have its funny moments, but as a whole it is so dark that the word "comedy" may be misleading.

The play takes place in the fishing port (and summer tourist destination) of Gloucester, Massachusetts. It chronicles the last year of Jacob Brackish’s life, from late winter through spring and summer (when the tourists are in town) to autumn (when they are gone), to the start of the next winter. Brackish is a retired high school teacher, who taught both English and music appreciation and has been described as "the meanest teacher ever to set foot in Gloucester High School." Increasingly frail, Brackish has been told by his doctor that he has but a year to live, and he has hired to help him a young woman named Kathleen Hogan who has recently lost her husband and who, it turns out, was a former student of his.

Hogan, who comes from a poor family, holds a large grudge against Brackish because, although she passed his courses, the marks he gave her were low enough to keep her from receiving a scholarship to college. As it turns out he failed both her mother and her father, to say nothing of her husband, who then dropped out of school and was forced to remain in unsatisfying jobs, which may have contributed to his early death.

Although only two people appear on stage, in a way it is misleading to describe "Park Your Car" as a two-person play. A third presence, which is actually the first voice the audience hears, before there is anyone on stage, is important to the development of the plot. This voice, which is frequently heard during most of the play, is that of the classical disc jockey Byron Weld. Brackish listens to classical music almost all the time. For him this is not just background music: he listens intently, frequently conducting and clearly enjoying what he hears. There’s an inside joke here too. Although Brackish occasionally complains that Weld has misidentified a piece, Weld makes many mistakes – some of the Koechel numbers could not be correct – that Brackish does not point out. Classical music is not Hogan’s favorite kind of music, which leads to another complication in their relationship. Weld’s pleas for donations become increasingly desperate, and the rapidly increasing deterioration of the disc jockey’s voice adds yet another disturbing dimension to the plot.

In fact, "Park Your Car" proceeds by presenting the audience with a situation that, from its nature, has to be unstable, and throughout the play is changed by a series of revelations. Things can get nasty, not surprising when you consider the basic setup – an ailing man, used to dominance, under the care of a woman with a grudge against him. The revelations that enable the situation to change are probably as much a surprise to the audience as they are to the two characters.

Playing Hogan is Alison Quairoli, who captivated Off-Broadstreet Theatre audiences with her portrayal of Mary Smith, one of the leading man’s two wives, in last season’s "Run for Your Wife," and also appeared in the theater’s production of "The Goodbye Girl." Brackish is played by Benjamin Lovell, a British actor who now lives in Baltimore, in his first appearance at the theater. The voice of Byron Weld is supplied by Doug Kline.

Whatever one’s attitude toward the play, and there were clearly mixed feelings in the audience at the performance I saw, one has to admire this production. The set, designed by producer Robert Thick, represents two floors of Brackish’s mid-19th-century coastal home. It is both striking and functional. Ann Raymond is responsible for the costumes, which are perhaps not as striking, but are certainly functional.

Horovitz is the author of more than 50 produced plays, has served as founding and artistic director of the Gloucester Stage Company and the New York Playwrights Lab, and has written many screenplays. "Park Your Car" was first performed in Los Angeles and first seen in New York in the 1980s. It will be seen this season in Paris (Horovitz is said to be the most popular American playwright in France) and in Prague and has recently been made into a film.

There are many tricky turns and twists to the plot, which it would be unfair to reveal here. But Thick, who also directed the play, has done a stunning job of making clear a complicated story without spoiling the suspense.

Park Your Car in Harvard Yard, through Saturday, September 8, Off-Broadstreet Theater, 5 South Greenwood Avenue, Hopewell, . Comedy by Israel Horovitz. $27.25. or 609-466-2766.

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