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Sweet bird of youth

One is so tempted to say that Joshua Conkel’s “MilkMilkLemonade,” the latest production by Astoria Performing Arts Center, is the story of a boy and his pet chicken. Of course, it’s much more than that.

Emory is an orphaned gay boy who lives on a chicken farm with his Nanna, a tough, sarcastic and brusquely loving old bird who’s dying of cancer. His one friend is Linda, the giant chicken whose clucks and squawks he can understand (and which are translated by the narrator). He also has a doll. All three of them have fantasies — or maybe they’re Emory’s fantasies — about being on “Reach for the Stars.”

There’s also Elliot, the neighborhood boy who abuses and comforts Emory by turns. Granted, his nastier moments are compelled by the parasitic twin who lives in his thigh, but that’s another problem.

In other words, everyone in the play has their dreams. Elliott dreams of going to the prom one day, in a tux, with a real girl. Even Nanna, who’s seen much of life and is about to leave it, dreams of her tenderhearted grandson growing up into her version of a real man, something that should best happen sooner rather than later in the hardscrabble community where they live.

The genius of “MilkMilkLemonade” is that although Emory does put away some childish things during the course of the play and his innocence is dented, he retains his ability to dream. Despite Nanna and the boys at school who tease him and Elliot’s insults, he never stops liking his unique, girlish, dreamy self.

Of course, this is all very screwy, and the play operates like a dream that makes its own weird sense.

Andy Phelan, who’s a grown man, projects Emory’s sweet vulnerability as well as his determination. Jess Barbagallo brings unexpected layers of tenderness to Elliot, who we’re inclined to dismiss, at first, as just the trash-burning little punk who lives down the road on a place with rusted old cars in the front yard.

Michael Cyril Creighton, in a sort of misshapen old lady fat suit and turban, is excellent as Nanna, who still smokes her Virginia Slims even as she must wheel around an oxygen tank.

Nikole Beckwith is fantastic as the goggle-eyed narrator, the emcee of Reach for the Stars, Elliot’s malevolent parasitic twin, and a spider. Oh yes, she also sings and dances as a version of Emory’s doll.

Jennifer Harder makes a moving Linda the chicken, no more so than when she does her stand-up act on “Reach for the Stars” and we, the audience, are encouraged to heckle her. And then there’s her sad/funny final striptease...

José Zayas directs the play with the sturdy hand it needs, as such a work can too easily descend into incoherent nuttiness.

Nicole Beerman choreographs the screamingly funny musical numbers and Jason Simms designed the set: a barn, a chicken coop with wooden hens on a carousel and a cheerful painted sun out of Teletubbies, even if it’s not a baby. Simms’ chicken processor is both grim and fairy-lit, like the offspring of a funhouse ride and Moloch, and in this and other scenes he’s helped by lighting designer Bruce Steinberg and sound designer David Margolin Lawson.

Sydney Maresca did the costumes. He makes Linda, dressed in a ratty fur stole, feathers and chicken legs, look half chicken and half hooker on a cold night.

“MilkMilkLemonade” is a truly offbeat pleasure. It’s a bit of a departure for the company because it’s a new work by a young playwright, scooped up by APAC after a brief run at the Under St. Mark’s Theater in Manhattan last year. But the risk certainly paid off.

If You Go

“MilkMilkLemonade,” a play by Joshua Conkel

When: Remaining dates Nov. 11-13, 8 p.m.; and Nov. 13, 2 p.m.

Where: Good Shepherd United Methodist Church, 30-44 Crescent St., Astoria

Cost: $12-$18

Contact: 718-706-5750 or info@apacny.org

Web site: www.apacny.org

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