One of the oldest theatrical maxims is that a gun seen in the first act always goes off in the third. Similarly, any pain-racked 86-year-old woman confined to a wheelchair is bound to die before the play ends. And that's what happens in Stephen Bill's dark comedy Curtains, which is playing at the International City Theatre. The problem is that she expires at the end of a painfully dull first act.But something remarkable happens after the intermission. Characters come to life. Performances become defined. Direction becomes thoughtful. And a flatly written quasi-comedy about a sick old lady who wants to die and the annoyingly peppy family that wants to deny her that becomes a compelling exploration of the right to die with honor and dignity.So we're left wondering whether Curtains is a masterful feat of theatrical prestidigitation-suckering the audience into thinking they're going to have a miserable time before unveiling the real play-or a mortally flawed work. Whatever the case, the ideas the play raises last longer than the play itself, and that's always a winner in this book-even if its emotional punch is severely minimized by the tepid first act.The curtain rises in the “rear living room of an inner-city Victorian house in Birmingham, England.” It's Ida's (Cynthia Mason) 86th birthday party, and her family is determined it's going to be a happy day-even if it kills the old bird. Her daughters, Margaret (the far too excited Gail Godown, who talks aboutasfastandasclearasthis) and Susan (Denise Poirier), chatter incessantly about how good Ida's looking, cheerfully dismissing her inability to stay lucid for more than 30 seconds. When Ida isn't asking the kindly next-door neighbor, Mrs. Jackson (Bette Rae), who the hell all these people are, she drops brutally frank comments about her miserable condition. “Can you smell the shit?” the incontinent Ida suddenly asks, a comment that only briefly derails the forced festive atmosphere.The level-headed, pragmatic men keep their stiff, English upper lips immobile. For one, Margaret's husband, Douglas (Brenan Baird), wants to fix that pesky manual lawn mower. And the family rambles on about everything but the real issue: Ida's in pain, and everyone wishes she'd just kick the bucket-especially Ida.The party is derailed by the appearance of Katherine, (Jacqueline Stehr), the daughter Ida kicked out of the house when she was 16. Katherine has returned to repair burned family bridges. But no one's glad she's back-particularly Ida, who just can't seem to remember who this person is. Or does she?This is all set-up, but it could have held my attention if director Richard Hochberg had spent some time exploring pace, rhythm and tempo. The first scene speeds by at such a breakneck pace that a lot of the comedy, most of the character, and nearly all of the emotional dynamics are lost in a wash of dialogue and action.Things get better in the second act, when Ida is murdered. Sure, I'm giving away a crucial plot point, but you know it's coming, and it doesn't matter anyway. Because really, Curtains is a second-act play dealing with the aftermath of death, namely how Ida's family copes with the unsettling notion that someone among them has committed a mercy killing. Edmund Shaff's Geoffrey, Katherine's husband, springs to life, nervously trying to get the facts in order. Douglas, in the play's most forceful moments, passionately defends the murderer; he watched both of his parents waste away in nursing homes and is convinced that the moral law of dying with dignity outweighs any political law. Ida's grandson, Michael (Christopher Jaymes, in the play's most balanced, natural performance), isn't so sure. Ida might have gotten better, and he thinks no one has a right to take another person's life.Now, none of the issues Bill raises adds much to the right-to-die debate; most of those who have formed opinions about it won't be shaken in the slightest. But I suspect Bill is targeting his play at those who haven't formed opinions-not because they don't care, but because they don't want to deal with it. The greatest crime-perhaps the only crime-in this play is denial. Ida's family denies the truth about her illness and their feelings about whether she should live. They deny so they do not have to act. And when someone finally does act, it hits the person like a runaway wheelchair.It's moving stuff-in theory. The fact that what happens onstage never quite delivers the promised emotional wallop is largely the fault of the dreary first act. But I'd be lying if I said Curtains didn't help me solidify my opinion on one aspect of the right-to-die question. I am now firmly against the right of a theatrical audience to pull the plug on a play at the intermission. Had it been my choice, I would have gladly dropped the curtain on Curtains, and I would have missed the second half of what could be a fine play.Curtains at the International City Theatre, Long Beach City College, Clark St. & Harvey Way, Long Beach, (562) 938-4128. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m. Through Sept. 6. $19-$22.