CAHOOTS, Victory Gardens Theater. Dying is easy, comedy is hard, actor Edmund Kean is said to have quipped on his deathbed. Harder still is the well-crafted comedy that turns serious in the second act. Lots of contemporary playwrights attempt this feat. Rebecca Gilman has virtually built her career on it.

But most writers stumble and end up with a play like Claudia Allen’s new Cahoots, which has neither the plentiful laughs to be a successful comedy nor the dramatic heft to work as a serious play. The problem is that Allen’s characters, a mismatched pair of playwrights, are boring. Even at their quirkiest they’re flatter than the folks populating an above-average sitcom. And their story–they collaborate, they have a handful of hits, they break up, they regret it–is not particularly compelling.

It doesn’t help that Sharon Gless, who made her name in the 80s playing Cagney on Cagney & Lacey, seems smaller than life onstage. She doesn’t have a clue how to deliver a comic line, and when the story turns serious, she indulges in soap-operaish wallowing. But I shouldn’t be too hard on her. Some of the funniest actors in Chicago–among them Sean Grennan and Rob Riley–do no better at making Allen’s leaden script fly.

Nathan Rankin, who died April 14, participated in an early workshop reading of Cahoots, as the program reminds us. No doubt whatever role he played was funnier in his adept hands. A memorial service will be held Monday, June 5, at 7 at About Face Theatre, Jane Addams Center Hull House, 3212 N. Broadway. –Jack Helbig