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'The Orphans' Home Cycle' at Signature Theatre

The Signature Theater Company threw itself a party Tuesday - complete with Mayor Michael Bloomberg - to announce it has raised $41 million of the $60 million necessary for its new Frank Gehry-designed theater in a high-rise at 480 W. 42nd St.

Meanwhile, one block west at the Signature's current home, the invaluable Off-Broadway institution continues the good news with the second of its remarkable three-part season devoted to "The Orphans' Home Cycle" - the condensation of nine early 20th century Texas plays that Horton Foote completed before he died in March at 92.

The first three-hour chunk, which opened last month, had the gripping, heart-tugging entertainment of an orphan saga by Charles Dickens. Now the second part, subtitled "The Story of a Marriage," puts more of a Norman Rockwell frame around the early adult years (1912-17) of orphan Horace Robedaux as he struggles with other people's families and makes one of his own.

Director Michael Wilson's loving production, coproduced by his Hartford Stage, continues to be a paragon of engrossing, old-fashioned storytelling. Bill Heck has a rare emotional honesty as Horace, and the 22-actor cast, including the playwright's daughter, Hallie Foote, transforms into a whole town of believable individuals. The final three plays open in late January, after which the entire epic will be played in repertory and all-day marathons. Talk of a Broadway transfer may be more than a fascinating rumor.

WHAT "The Orphans' Home Cycle: Part Two - The Story of a Marriage"

WHERE Signature Theatre Company, 555 W. 42nd St.

INFO $20 ($65 after March 9); 212-244-7529; signature theatre.org.

BOTTOM LINE The story continues, with rigor and heart.

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