Lest you deduce from the title that "A Kiss . . . Too Late," the drama by Terence Cooper currently at The Rep Inc., is heavy on rose-colored sentiments, it should be pointed out that a "kiss" in the argot of the evening is a quick slash of the knife, one which touches no vital organs but causes profuse bleeding.

Cooper no doubt intends his title to be taken two ways, since his play is about a black waitress struggling to keep afloat among society's dregs, and the man who, having abandoned her and the son he sired, returns years later to try to regenerate their romance. But it is the image of the "kiss," as a quick slice of steel, that dominates in this despairing work.

The action is set in Swigg's Zebra Room, an unappetizing dive that serves as the hangout for a collection of pimps, drifters and con men. Necessity once forced Beth, the heroine, into the arms of the Pastor, a two-bit operator whose credo is "Ain't but one way to play the game -- you want to make it? Take it!" Now that her rebellious son, Chappie, has begun to model himself after the Pastor, however, Beth worries for more than herself. Potential salvation shows up in the form of her old boyfriend, Shank, who offers the prospect of a cottage in the suburbs, a weekly paycheck and at least that small part of an automobile the bank doesn't possess.

But it seems to be Cooper's thesis that there is no escaping this sordid milieu, which puts raw survival first and last. I say "seems," because while Cooper takes great pains to set up the heroine's predicament, his play ends abruptly in a flurry of inconclusive melodrama. Perhaps he is saying that morality is an irrelevant issue in these lower depths, that circumstances invariably combine to defeat any and all decent impulses. Still, he has avoided writing the emotional crux of his play -- that transcendent moment when the characters come smack up against the hopelessness of their universe and must assess its consequences for themselves.

There are other faults. Characters arrive all too propitiously on the scene and the play occasionally wanders off on some dramatically unnecessary tangents. Still, Cooper has a feel for gritty dialogue and the pugnacious instincts of his characters, who are continually trying to best one another, if not with words, then with a "piece" (a gun). Despite the awkwardness of its structure, "A Kiss . . . Too Late" rests on a hard core of authenticity.

The Rep cast, directed by Vantile E. Whitfield, rotates from performance to performance, so it is hard to say just who you'll see. At this performance Jaye W. Stewart, coolly ruthless as the Pastor, and Reggie Colbert, quietly decent as Shank, made for a strong pair of antagonists. The others had the zeal of their roles, if not always matching acting techniques. And if the staging rambled, it boasted at least one bravura moment -- a bloody knife fight executed in excruciatingly painful slow motion.

A KISS . . . TOO LATE. By Terence Cooper. Directed by Vantile E. Whitfield; costumes, Ketia Semia; set, Vantile E. Whitfield; lighting, William Pettus Jr. With Roscoe Freeman, Arthur Dailey Jr., Sediqa Pettaway, Tabia Thomas, Valdred Brown, Reggie Colbert, Jaye W. Stewart. At The Rep through Dec. 20.