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Off Broadway Is Perfect Fit For This Foote

March 15, 1987|DAN SULLIVAN

NEW YORK — Gerald Schoenfeld of the Shubert Organization told an interviewer recently that he'd rather hear people talking about going to the theater than about going to see "Cats."

Schoenfeld himself goes to the theater. We saw him downtown at a matinee of Israel Horovitz's "North Shore Fish" the other Sunday afternoon. But the Shuberts and their competitors, the Nederlanders, are pushing the notion that the theater's basic function these days is providing the public with Big Events--like the Shuberts' "Cats."

This season's examples are "Les Miserables" and another Andrew Lloyd Webber show, "Starlight Express." Each cost as much as a battleship and was designed to run for a decade. Against such firepower, who wants to see a nice little play by Horton Foote?

Yes, plays are still being produced in New York--Off Broadway. Often that's good for the play. Foote's "The Widow Claire," for example, is a perfect fit for Circle-in-the-Square's downtown house on Bleecker Street.

You wouldn't want to see this play in a picture-frame Broadway house, at Broadway prices. The context would be wrong. It isn't a peak experience. It's a thoughtful comedy about a young fellow (Matthew Broderick) who comes calling on a red-headed widow (Hallie Foote--the playwright's daughter) and sees that he's not old enough to handle her. It belongs right where it is.

Unfortunately, when the Tony awards are being handed out on TV later this spring, we won't hear anything about "The Widow Claire." Nor will we hear anything about Arthur Miller's new one-acts downstairs at Lincoln Center--"I Can't Remember Anything" and "Clara." Nor will there be a mention of Horovitz's "North Shore Fish" at the WPA Theatre on 23rd Street. These may be very worthy plays--but they weren't done on 44th Street.

We will hear plenty about Neil Simon's "Broadway Bound." In fact, we already have. Time magazine has declared it to be one of the best American plays of the decade--or was it the half century? I found it the least effective of Simon's three Brighton Beach plays, more earnest than the others but hardly the exorcism of family ghosts that some of the reviews suggested.

We are not talking O'Neill here. We are maybe talking Moss Hart, if Hart had written a serious comedy about growing up in Brooklyn. "Broadway Bound" isn't chopped liver. It has some first-class one-liners and a lovely performance from Linda Lavin as the mother. It should make a good movie, if Simon opens it up and shows us the brothers breaking into TV. For services rendered to Shubert Alley, he deserves the Tony he'll get for "Broadway Bound." But family drama isn't his metier.

It is Foote's metier. He had two Off-Broadway productions this winter, all part of the same Texas cycle--"The Widow Claire" and "Lily Dale" at the Samuel Beckett Theatre. The latter wasn't at all well-acted, and the lines fell flat. The former was beautifully acted, and the lines hung in the air like smoke.

Foote is a Chekhovian--or a Southerner. His plays have to be acted and listened to with patience. His characters talk and talk and talk, quite often about nothing.

But under the talk, you can make out what they want. Which they often don't get. Which is not always a tragedy. At the end of "The Widow Claire," one realizes that the point of the story was what didn't happen: that by being too shy, or too polite, Broderick lost his moment with the widow--luckily for him.

The one American playwright least likely to write this way is Arthur Miller. That's why it's a delight to come across his "I Can't Remember Anything" at Lincoln Center. This has Geraldine Fitzgerald as an old woman who isn't as vague as she seems and Mason Adams as an old man who isn't as past-it as he feels.

Again, their conversation is one thing, the information flowing between them something else. The New York critics only heard the conversation and thought that Miller was starting to repeat himself--and it's true Gregory Mosher's direction was a bit too objective. But there's a lot going on in this little play, and the audience in the small Forum Theater had their antennae out.

The audience also picked up on the companion play, "Clara," in which a good man (Kenneth McMillan) considers that he may have traduced his murdered daughter by teaching her to trust the world too much. It's a situation that would not occur to a younger writer, and McMillan plays tellingly. Neither of these plays is a major work, but each belongs in the Miller canon. Horovitz's "North Shore Fish" is a disappointment. The premise sounds interesting: the last day of a frozen-fish plant in Massachusetts, Horovitz's home turf. But rather than depict the day realistically, the playwright throws in something convulsive every 10 minutes--a fight, a hint of a murder, even a childbirth scene.

Would it be unfair to say that this play is full of red herrings? Less, already! On the other hand, maybe Mr. Schoenfeld will buy it for a musical. Andrew Lloyd Webber hasn't written a show for 10 minutes.

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