"Same Time, Next Year" is a play that is superficially about sex. Yet when one character says to another, "I'll show you mine if you'll show me yours," it turns out they're talking about pictures of their children. So it's not about sex after all but instead is one of the most unorthodox and original love stories ever staged.

The Vienna Theatre Company has chosen Bernie Slade's comedy-drama to start its season, which is a bit risky. This is a two-person play, not usually a good audience draw for a community theater. It also requires a talented cast and director to overcome the fact that the characters are adulterers.

"Same Time" is a series of period pieces following George and Doris, who meet in 1951 and begin a truly affectionate 25-year affair, although it is an affair with a significant hitch: They only stray from their spouses to meet once a year at the California seaside cottage where they first encountered each other.

The play was a hit during the mid-1970s at the height of the sexual revolution and fit the times perfectly; it may be a harder sell now, although the script does not seem dated. That may be because with the passage of time, even the "contemporary" date of the story's conclusion, 1975, is long enough ago to also qualify for period-piece status.

Directed by Suzanne Chaudet Maloney with a relaxed pacing that allows the dialogue and the acting to resonate naturally, this is an ultimately heartwarming exploration of the meaning of love as both the characters and the times evolve.

The tale jumps ahead in five-year increments, the transitions highlighted by overly long slide shows displaying images, newspaper headlines and music appropriate to the era.

The production is most notable, however, for the exceptional performance by Vienna Theatre Company newcomer Chuck Dluhy as George. Dluhy offers a realistically nuanced portrayal of his character, avoiding the temptation to mug and pump the laugh lines for audience reaction. His delight with Doris is tinged with guilt over his infidelity, and his evolution from idealistic young man to stressed-out success is a seamless transition.

Playwright Slade eventually has George become something of a '70's caricature, a pony-tailed, psycho-babbling dropout from the rat race. Dluhy avoids the pitfalls here, as well, rising above the material to maintain the man's inner core so painstakingly established in earlier scenes. That allows for maximum impact when it comes time for the wrenching emotional scenes.

Dluhy's transformation over the decades is remarkable, and it's not just the hair and makeup by Joan Silver -- effective though they are -- that age him. He seems to physically embody the emotional changes the years have wrought so that when we see him after each five-year absence, there is a bit of a shock.

He is the same, yet different, just as an old friend in real life might seem after a long absence.

As Doris, Vienna Theatre Company veteran Jina Ames adequately makes her way from stereotypical 1951 housewife to "liberated" but pressured business owner, ending up in an early stage of post-feminist relaxation.

She successfully delivers Slade's Neil Simon-like jokes, such as chirping that she's so adventuresome she sometimes takes the alternate selections from Book-of-the-Month Club.

Unfortunately, Ames often strains too much, her voice rising into an unnatural pitch that screams "acting!" at the audience.

Mary Rose Vasko's large and well-appointed set provides a wonderfully realistic background for the story, although one would think a bedspread or chair might change a bit over 25 years of use.

The stage version of "Same Time, Next Year" does not have the same ending as the popular 1978 movie starring Alan Alda and Ellen Burstyn, which some people may find a bit disconcerting.

But the play nevertheless remains a satisfying evening of theater.

"Same Time, Next Year" will be performed through Nov. 2 at the Vienna Community Center, 120 Cherry St. Shows begin at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, with a 2 p.m. matinee on Sunday. For tickets, call

703-255-6360.

Chuck Dluhy (George) and Jina Ames (Doris) play lovers in a 25-year affair in Vienna Theatre Company's "Same Time, Next Year."