Tom and Jerry, American Blues Theatre.

Rick Cleveland’s play would make a great movie. The scenes are short. The pace is quick. The dialogue is witty. And the chatty pair of hit men at the center of it are just the sort of cartoonish characters–85 percent cliche–Hollywood adores.

In the theater, however, this likable entertainment comes across as hollow, despite Dexter Bullard’s sharp, clear direction and fine performances from all three cast members. It’s unfortunate, but Cleveland’s main point–that Tom and Jerry are regular guys who just happen to kill for a living–seems obvious after Pulp Fiction. As does the play’s most interesting feature: the touching, funny, remarkably mundane conversations Tom and Jerry indulge in prior to each hit. Cleveland says he started the play long before Quentin Tarantino’s film was released, but that’s showbiz: the film was out before the play was produced.

Besides, Cleveland shortchanges the deeper strains in his work–meditations on honor, friendship, and the need to dissociate work from family life–in order to wring ghoulish laughs out of the material, as when Jerry, trying to dismember a victim, has trouble starting a chain saw and Tom lectures him on the correct way to handle power tools.

This is live theater, and Cleveland and Bullard can’t depend on Hollywood tricks–exotic locales, dazzling editing, pretty actors, a great sound track, and lots of blood and explosions–to make Tom and Jerry seem deeper than it is.