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Paul Osborn's play seems to have had a direct line to the endless summer of Norman Rockwell's small town America, but there's more here than a magazine cover as the unequivocally lovable characters deal with the eternal verities. When Gramps (Dan Leslie, alternating with Steven Shaw) finds himself bereft of son, daughter-in-law, and wife in quick succession, he decides to outwit Death, so he can bring up his grandson in the way he should go. Self-righteous Aunt Demetria (a nicely starchy Nathalie Cunningham), with her eye on the boy's inheritance, calls in the men in white coats when Gramps starts having conversations with the invisible (to her) Mr. Brink (Michael Bonnabel). Brink has already led Gramps' Miss Nellie (a sweetly real Barbara Perry) to the great beyond and now has come for the old man. Whimsy is in full flutter as the oldster's determination magically trees the indomitable Mr. Brink, who has no recourse but to quit business until he can unlock Gramps' spell.

Death (or Mr. Brink) is stuck on hold, and not only in Gramps' back yard, until the two contenders play out their game. Director Melanie MacQueen, on Jeff G. Rack's superb set, keeps the pot well stirred and allows her cast leeway to have fun with the concept of fighting to the death with Death. Leslie gives a competent, if predictable, performance as crusty old Gramps. Bonnabel, who's cool just lounging in the apple tree, plays Brink as Noël Coward. David Hunt Stafford is nice and easy as the pragmatic Dr. Evans, as is Nicola Seixas as Marcia, the nanny/housekeeper devoutly to be wished. As grandson Pud, Zack Goldman (alternating with Kairo Graham) is a bit stiff, though he has a good familial relationship with Gramps. These actors are maybe too comfortable with their era-stereotypical characters, failing to reach beyond their ready-made roles to tell the tale. While Osborn coaxes us to accept the fantastical conceit, save for the questionable ending, the actors seem to be laughing at their characters instead of giving them stretching exercises.

"On Borrowed Time," presented by Theatre 40 at the Reuben Cordova Theatre, 241 Moreno Dr., Beverly Hills. Thu.-Sat. 8 p.m., Matinees. July 31-Sept. 5. $18-20. (310) 364-0535.

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