STEVE TESICH IS A TOM STOPPARD FAN. I know this because On the Open Road, a Tesich play now being staged by the Repertory Actors Theater, baldly apes Stoppard's Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, itself a riff on Waiting for Godot (a fact also not lost on Tesich, a smart writer who won an Oscar for writing the film Breaking Away). Stoppard's endearing buffoons banter about life, art, and purpose in pursuit of an elusive Hamlet. Al and Angel, Tesich's apocalyptic mates, banter similarly on a timeless landscape of Civil War, and cart around art masterpieces in pursuit of freedom, and, ultimately, Jesus. Tesich, however, is no Stoppard, and his reach far exceeds his grasp, though occasionally the reach is worth the ride.

Boasting truly fine design work (war-ravaged set and costumes by John McDermott and Craig Labenz, respectively, with lighting by Jason Meininger and sound by Jeremiah Bennett), this production comes to us with effusive program notes commending the courage of the show in surviving its two lead actors "literally stepping in at the last minute." It is not unfair of me to say, then, that some of the strain shows. Alan DiBona's direction is shapeless and often vacillates in tone; dramatic shifts come out of nowhere because DiBona and cast haven't worked up to them. David A. Lewis' solid performance as Al, the aesthete, is thisclose to hitting the mark (another week and he'll be there), but Paul Ray seems lost and overly eager as Angel.

The playwright, meanwhile, is busy elbowing us in the ribs with his Deeper Meaning. Long before a monk (Scott Nath) taps at the proverbial fourth wall with a rant about being in a theater audience, it becomes obvious that Tesich is going to explain everything. Stoppard transcends cleverness until something larger and unexpected blossoms, but Tesich ensnares himself in the branches of ripe epigrams hoping to be plucked ("Man is chaos. Art never is," and so on). It's too bad, because there's something quite lovely about what he's trying to do, echoed by the earnest ambitions of this production. In a moving moment near the end, Al turns to Angel and quietly confesses his happiness that, though he's read and understood everything from the Torah to the Koran, "I don't get you." Somewhere in the clutter of Tesich's words and the scrappiness of DiBona's company is the centuries-old but still timely idea that the most complex and priceless work of art is a human being.