— Harvey Fierstein's musical remake of A Catered Affair begins like a pebble tossed in a pond. Janey and Ralph are getting married. They don't want a big wedding, just a ten-dollar/ten-minute affair at City Hall, then off to California: no strain on her parents' finances, no excluded invitees. No hassle. Their decision would help her father, in fact. He doesn't say so, but he could use that money to buy a taxicab with his partner. But Janey's mother wants her oft-neglected daughter to have the big church, the white gown, plus a sit-down dinner for 150. The practical "I do" ripples into strained friendships and bottom-line revelations -- and then deeper ones.

The Old Globe's opening-night performance mirrored this effect. Affair is "Broadway Bound" this spring, but for about the first 20 minutes it was hard to tell where the show was headed. Backed by three-story Bronx tenements and sliding parts of brownstone walls, the cast performed no boffo dance number (they open, in fact, just singing "la...la...la...," as if warming up). The first quartet of songs, sung while people folded clothes or changed the sheets, were unremarkable backstory material. Fierstein, a theater icon, took stage and played front, as if he had grafted a star vehicle for himself onto a lightweight family-squabble piece.

Somewhere in those 20 minutes, however, a transformation occurs: not onstage, but in expectations. Throughout, the cast performs under-the-top, at a human speed with nary a bell nor whistle. Compared to most musicals, Affair feels humble (maybe too humble for Broadway). A lower-middle-class Bronx family in 1953, Tom, wife Aggie, young Janey, and the others are actual people with life-sized crises. And you're building a show around that? After about 20 minutes, however, their expanding dilemmas, and what's at stake, arouse interest. After the next 20, they become inescapable. The scaled-down intro, it turns out, teaches its audience how to watch Affair, which Fierstein defines not as a musical but "a play with music."

And the play's the thing. If you're expecting a musical built on externals, or to be pummeled by jazzy sights and ear-splitting sounds -- known locally as being Carmen-ized -- Affair will disappoint. It's built from the inside and grounded on emotional truth.

Toned-down externals magnify feelings. When the family argues, or when Fierstein's Winston says they're excluding him from the wedding because he's gay, it's not as if we're watching actors on a stage; it's like overhearing your next-door neighbors go at it or some stranger venting on a cell phone. Depending on your penchant for gossip (the women in nearby tenements, who function like a Greek chorus, eat it up), the emotions are so accurate, you may wonder if what you're hearing's too personal.

And the arguments aren't one-sided. For much of the play the father, Tom (Tom Wopat), has "absent" etched across his forehead like a scarlet A. His wife's complaints pile up until Wopat explodes into "I Stayed," a lion's roar of fidelity and commitment. The song isn't one to hum on the drive home but, like most of John Bucchino's score, it's appropriate for that character at that moment. The pop-based, serviceable music comes under the story. The exception is Fierstein singing "Coney Island," and the finale, "Coney Island Chorale," which offer some of the sanest advice around.

Director John Doyle stresses the play's interiors with radical choices. Instead of cramming every frame with business, he often leaves the whole stage silent. At one point the show must jump from an entertaining sequence to the death of the son. How to make the transition? Bring in an American flag, folded like a three-cornered hat. Then do nothing. Give the audience a chance to breathe, and change keys in its mind. At another point, the astonishing Faith Prince, who makes Aggie, the mother, a fracturing fortress, sits in a pool of light. Doesn't move. At first you think someone missed a cue. Then you realize that Aggie needs this time alone and that neither words nor music would be adequate. Eventually she crosses the stage, walks up a steel fire escape, gazes down and pauses again. Like Tadashi Suzuki and the plays of Maria Irene Fornes, the director lets stillness tell the story.

With one exception, the production's fiercely period: square, bulky '50s suits and dresses, imitation-Hollywood makeup, stiffed-back rectitude. The production is also ensemble-based, with one exception. For about the first third, Fierstein plays not Winston but himself, today: he's fun and flamboyante and America's Oscar Wilde. But everything around him is 1953. Senator Joseph McCarthy is tailgunning enemies within (Army-McCarthy Hearings begin in April 1954); intolerance rules. For Winston to be that "out" at that point in time makes him appear suicidal (the choice also creates aesthetic crossed-purposes: will Catered be just a star vehicle?). As the play proceeds, Fierstein pulls back into the ensemble, becomes Winston, and the initial confusions vanish. And in the end, it's hard to imagine anyone else singing "Coney Island," a wisdom-song about how to take a leap of faith.

A Catered Affair, book by Harvey Fierstein, music and lyrics by John Bucchino

Old Globe Theatre, Balboa Park

Directed by John Doyle; cast: Faith Prince, Harvey Fierstein, Matt Cavenaugh, Tom Wopat, Leslie Kritzer, Heather MacRae, Philip Hoffman, Lori Wilner, Kristine Zbornik; scenic design, David Gallo; costumes, Ann Hould-Ward; lighting, Brian MacDevitt; sound, Dan Moses Schreier; music director, Constantine Kitsopoulos

Playing through November 4; Sunday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, at 7:00 p.m. Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Matinee Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 619-234-5623.


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