When Chazz Palminteri’s screenplay for “Faithful,” a brilliant psychological drama/comedy/twister, was made into a movie in 1996 it starred Cher, Ryan O’Neal, and Chazz himself, and was directed by Paul Mazursky and produced by Robert DeNiro.

Not too shabby a lineup. But that stellar production has nothing on the dazzling play version now being presented at Santa Monica’s extraordinary Ruskin Group Theatre.

Palminteri’s gripping script translates beautifully into a small, intense confrontation between a suicidal housewife, Margaret (played with no holds barred by Reamy Hall) and the hit man her husband has sent to kill her.

The hit man, Tony, is played sympathetically by the gorgeous John Collela, who really doesn’t want to kill her, but “has no choice” because he needs the money.

Under the tight direction of Mikey Myers, the Ruskin’s managing director, the conversation between the two principles veers from drama to comedy as they negotiate the murder while discussing the pros and cons of fidelity. You’re faithful, Tony says, “When you’ve got more to lose than to gain.”

He was faithful to his wife for two years — for the most part.

Margaret, who has reached her suicidal state as a result of her husband’s continual infidelities throughout their 15-year marriage, comments, “You will do anything for someone you love — except love him again.”

The conversation between these two is so engrossing and the acting so perfect (and that’s not easy when you’re tied up in a chair, dressed in pajamas and no makeup), that you almost resent the intrusion of a third party, Jack, Margaret’s husband (played by an arrogant and nasty Jim Roof) who makes his entrance in the second act.

But he, in his slimy, posturing way, is as fine an actor as the other two, and he adds a fascinating new dimension to the action of the play.

The essence of his character is revealed in two brief comments: “There was greatness inside of me,” he says, “but I was the only one who knew it.” And, in response to Margaret’s plaintive “Can’t a woman make a man happy?” he snarls, “Yeah, sure — one he can’t have.”

Tony, meanwhile, commandeers the scene by waving his gun around. “The one with the gun makes the rules,” he says.

All this drama is carried out in a beautiful living room set designed by Siegfried Ackermann and Ryan Wilson, complete with original paintings by Scott Davis Jones, and enhanced by Kathi O’Donohue’s lighting design.

But the star is Palminteri’s marvelous script, which doesn’t flag for a moment. And neither do the play’s awesome performers. This one is definitely a must see.

“Faithful” will continue at the Ruskin Group Theatre, 3000 Airport Ave., in Santa Monica, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. through Nov. 16. Call (310) 397-3244 for tickets.

Cynthia Citron can be reached at ccitron@socal.rr.com.

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