Numb disbelief is the state of mind engendered by "Animals," a grotesque triple bill that came to the Princess last night. Nothing, you think as you sit in the midst of a dazed audience thinning out as the evening goes by, could be so utterly dumb.
Toward the end of the second of the three "comedies," a lulu (with a Lulu, in fact) entitled "Louie and the Elephant," you begin to get the idea that what the playwright, Eddie Lawrence, has in mind throughout is pathos, and the final playlet ("Sort of an Adventure") tends-to-bear this out. But in structure, development and dialogue, let alone content, the works are so inept that intent hardly matters.
In the opener ("The Beautiful Mariposa"), which is in three scenes, a Spanish bullfighter and his mistress, a onetime flamenco dancer, are holed up in a motel room in a Kansas village where, in pursuit of the matador's goal to slay a bull in each state of the union, he has inadvertently killed a cow.
In the second piece, a prosperous San Francisco nightclub owner with the head of an elephant (he was formerly a whole elephant, but let that pass) assumes the features of a normal man only to learn that he's 110 years old and no longer attractive to women (?!).
In the third, a bricklayer falls for a duck-billed woman, a circus freak (this is just one of the evening's many anachronisms; "gat" for "gun" is another), and is prepared to leave his wife when the sideshow attraction sheds her bill and, now a young beauty, wins a Hollywood movie contract. This play, also in three scenes, is set in Greenwich Village, making the evening a kind of coast-to-coast disaster with a misguided stopover in the heartland.
In the middle piece, Joel Kramer, a stout actor who probably keeps thinking how much more rewarding it would be bellowing in Ionesco's "Rhinoceros," invests the part of the Elephant with a good deal of suave authority, while Dan Frazer, as Louie, makes an entirely credible grifter, though of a dated order. And in the final work, in which Ben Kapen and Jeanne Wechsler portray a squabbling "Honeymooners"-type married couple, Cara Duff-MacCormick is able, through sheer skill, to bring an airy distinction to the role of the duck-woman. The less said about the rest, the better.
Lawrence has directed his so-called comedies efficiently, while neglecting to tell the author to go home and forget it. The readily adaptable scenery, the costumes, and the lighting meet the evening's slim requirements. But Jane Stein's wire-stranded elephant hand with its tusks and glaring eyes, and her workable orange duck bill are really nifty. They and the actors mentioned deserve rescuing. Nothing else, I'm afraid.
Passion is the most important quality for an artist. Compassion is not precisely the most important quality for a critic, but it certainly never hurt. Passion may have no bounds, compassion undeniably has its limits.
Those limits were transgressed by an evening called Animals, written and directed by Eddie Lawrence, which presumably still had the temerity to open at the Princess Theater last night. I saw it at a preview, and wondered whether it was a moral duty thereafter to picket the theater and warn people of what was going on inside.
Luckily, I'm paid to be bored - at least occasionally. But boredom is one thing - petrifaction is beyond the normal call of duty.
Lawrence was an amusing comedian a few years ago in cabaret and television. Indeed, oddly enough, I still have one of his records where he does mild-toned yet not unamusing routines. Scarcely the greatest wit in the world - but I never threw away the record.
I mention the record for the record, and as a token of my lack of ill will. But that is a lie - this man stole two hours out of my life. I would even have gotten away earlier from the Ancient Mariner in half the time at a crummy party.
Three playlets. The first starts promisingly - for three, maybe four, minutes. A matador has sworn to destiny that he will kill a bull in every state of the union. Unfortunately, he doesn't know the difference between bulls and cows. So he kills cows. Police object - for all I know, so do cows.
Why am I telling you all this? It could be sadism. Or morose morbidity. The second play is about an elephant man who really does have an elephant head. Cute? Well, not really. But maybe the last play will grab you - a man falls in love with a woman who is really a duck.
His wife, unforgivably, serves up roast duck when she comes to dinner. The heroine's beak falls off - I trust I am not giving away anything that might be conceived of as a plot - and, guess what? Without that beak, the lady is GORGEOUS!
These one-liner cartoons are, I suspect, meant to be love fables. Fabulous they are not. The views of love are simplistic at best. The actual writing is almost as bad as the concept, except that nothing could be quite as bad as the concept. Some talented actors were involved. Their secret will be safe with me.
Can there be any doubt we've reached the silly season on Broadway? Just when it seemed that ''Fools'' was safely behind us, along comes ''Animals,'' an evening of three one-act comedies that makes ''Fools'' look like a model of civilized humor by comparison. What's next? Just possibly a mental collapse for those theatergoers who are exposed to too much of this nonsense in too short a period of time.
The author and director of ''Animals'' is Eddie Lawrence, the comic (''The Old Philosopher'') and sometime musical-comedy writer (''Kelly''). I most fondly remember Mr. Lawrence for his performance as the bookie in the musical ''Bells Are Ringing,'' where he sang of the joys of Salzburg to Jean Stapleton. I intend to preserve that memory by forgetting ''Animals'' as soon as possible.
There's not much to say about this gloomy show, which tumbled into the Princess last night. Mr. Lawrence has composed three long sketches that are unfunny, shapeless and, at times, incomprehensible. Each play involves animals as well as people, and one assumes that Mr. Lawrence is trying to write Thurberesque fables. But it's hard to know for sure. There's little recognizable human or barnyard behavior in any of the plays; Mr. Lawrence's various morals, all delivered point blank, make little sense. Though actors move about the stage and read lines, ''Animals'' is so detached from any known reality that the audience might just as well be staring into a void.
The plays' plots speak for themselves. In the curtain-raiser, a Spanish toreador is touring America with the plan of ''killing a bull in each one of the 50 states.'' He gores a cow by accident in Kansas, which leads to his hot pursuit by the local authorities. The second play is about an elephant who is a gangland mug in San Francisco and aspires to be a man so that he can be seen in decent restaurants with his fiance. The final offering, which does not vary markedly in substance from the second, tells of a circus freak - half duck, half woman - who becomes a full-fledged woman while eating roast duck at a suitor's apartment in Greenwich Village.
Mr. Lawrence has staged ''Animals'' on tawdry sets in the histrionic, eye-bulging manner of old-time burlesque. One's heart goes out to the cast. Dan Frazer, as an ex-tiger who resembles the comedian Bob Newhart, and Joel Kramer, as an elephant who looks and talks like Nero Wolfe, bring a welcome air of professionalism to the second play. Cara Duff-MacCormick must wear a duck beak for most of the third, but she still insists on investing her role with a lilting voice and a full measure of sincerity. To see this gifted actress in ''Animals'' is to appreciate just how much bravery it takes to pursue an acting career in New York.