That frightening "R"-word.Unless you're a hermit living in a cave somewhere in the extremely High Uintas, then you're involved in one kind of relationship or another - at work, at home, on the phone, commuting, shopping, day in, day out.

Like an old Clint Eastwood movie title, some relationships are good, some are bad, some can get ugly.

Playwright Stephen Metcalfe touches on these and more in "White Man Dancing," which has its regional premiere this week at Salt Lake Acting Company.

Director Nancy Borgenicht didn't even bother holding auditions for the two-character comedy-drama. She knew exactly who she wanted to play Dell, a sleazy, struggling actor just separated from his wife, Bonnie, and Stuart, a playwright who takes Dell in as a roommate.

Dell and Stuart are old friends. Dell has even acted in some of the workshop productions of Stuart's plays.

The two roles will be played by Allen Nevins and David Mong, two good friends in real life who have roots going back to SLAC's forerunner, the former Human Ensemble at the Glass Factory Theatre in Arrow Press Square.

Mong (Dell), is a native of Roy, Utah. He's lived and worked in Seattle, Wash., for the past 12 years. Before moving to the Northwest, he and Nevins (who plays Stuart) acted together in 13 Human Ensemble productions.

During rehearsals for "White Man Dancing" the past few weeks, it's been difficult to spot the difference between the real on-stage acting and the long-time camaraderie between Mong and Nevins.

"I last worked here with Allen in `Betrayal' and I hadn't seen him for two years, but when we first got together again it was like we hadn't skipped a beat, picking right up with our usual conversations," Mong said during an interview at SLAC.

I asked if Stuart's "struggling actor" characterization was realistic, maybe even typecasting.

"It's so true that it hurts, and you have two choices. It's embarrassing to cry in front of your friends, so we laugh," Mong said.

Actually, Mong hasn't had to resort to waiting on tables, as many actors do. He arrived in Seattle just when the theater scene in the Northwest was taking off, but the acting pool was still lagging behind. So he's kept busy working in a number of professional theaters in Seattle and Portland.

Director Borgenicht is excited about "White Man Dancing" because it's brilliantly written and "is so `right on' about friendships and relationships of all sorts."

Both Borgenicht and Mong agree that Metcalfe's play is the best "buddy" piece since Neil Simon's "The Odd Couple" - and there will probably be some comparisons drawn. But while "The Odd Couple" goes more for broad, one-liner comedy, "White Man Dancing" is packed with more '90s style honesty and realism.

And, ironically, Metcalfe's insightful honesty results in an even funnier play than "The Odd Couple."

While it has only two characters on stage, the two men who are great friends, the women in their lives are very pervasive and very real, even though they never appear.

"It's a full-dimensional thing about men, women and marriage and why we sometimes seem like alien forces," said Mong. "It hits upon some germane points of truth about peoples' psyches - the sort of dissatisfaction in one's life that becomes crystallized in one's partner and the reality that sometimes the only way to make a change is to change partners."

"Everyone will be able to connect with this," added Borgenicht. "It's touching and revealing, but not at all predictable. It keeps surprising you."

Mong has also written a couple of plays, including one - "Master of Ceremonies" - which was produced in New York City and involved several friends from his old Human Ensemble days.

Nevins was last seen in SLAC's production of "Hunting Cockroaches."

Shows that Nevins and Mong appeared in together locally include "When You Comin' Back, Red Ryder?" "That Championship Season," "The Steadfast Tin Soldier," "Betrayal" and "Marvelous Memories of Magnificent Movies."

Nevins was SLAC's literary manager last year and now divides his time between writing screenplays and his duties as regional vice president of the Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of America.

"White Man Dancing" had its premiere last summer at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego, where Metcalfe is an associate artist.

Metcalfe's screenplays include "Jacknife" and "Cousins," as well as work on "Pretty Woman" and "Arachnophobia." His other plays include "Vikings," "Strange Snow," "Half A Lifetime" (produced by HBO in 1986), "The Incredibly Famous Willy Rivers" (a recipient of TCG/HBO's Best New American Play award in 1985), "Loves and Hours," "Sorrows and Sons," and "White Linen," a western musical coauthored with Douglas Michilinda.

- "WHITE MAN DANCING" will have preview performances on Wednesday and Thursday, Jan. 16-17, after which it will continue through Feb. 17 with performances at 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays, 8 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, and 2 and 7 p.m. on Sundays.

Post-play discussions are scheduled following the Sunday matinee on Jan. 20 and the Thursday evening performance on Jan. 24.

Tickets are $12 for the two preview performances, $14 and $17.50 for regular performances, and $6 for "student rush" admission five minutes prior to performances. Salt Lake Acting Company is located at 168 W. 500 North.

For reservations and further information, call the box office at 363-0525.

- FREE READING: Aden Ross, SLAC's literary manager, also has announced that the company has scheduled a free reading of Metcalfe's "Strange Snow" on Monday, Feb. 4, at 7 p.m. This play deals with two Vietnam veterans coming to terms with the past and their future after the war. Refreshments will be served prior to the performance.