THE CAVE DWELLERS, Fleetwood-Jourdain Theatre. William Saroyan’s 1957 comedy-drama stirs recollections of The Lower Depths–indeed, one of its most striking characters is a large dancing bear named Gorky. But there are no villains among Saroyan’s squatters, living in an abandoned theater on New York’s Lower East Side. Even the crew sent to raze the building find the compassion and the means to delay their task until its residents have prepared for departure.

This play may indeed represent a microcosm of society, as was observed at the time it was written, with all the symbolism that implies. But director Phillip Edward VanLear further enlarges the play’s universe to include critics’ comments at its premiere and a mock interview with Saroyan himself. And if the characters are sometimes a little too neatly allegorical–like the young woman who lost her job at the toy factory after bungling the assembly of play guns–the actors forge distinctive personalities for each one. (Particularly notable are Dana Marini as the bear’s gentle trainer-accompanist and Erich Muhammad as a former boxing champion who unconsciously makes fists when he’s uneasy.)

At once exotic and familiar–rather like Walter Hoving’s comfortably cluttered set–the universe that Fleetwood-Jourdain Theatre establishes may engage us partly through blatantly sentimental appeals. But in a cold world, a show that sends the audience home a little warmer is never unwelcome.

–Mary Shen Barnidge