Jean Kerr's "Lunch Hour," which came to the Barrymore last night, is an amiable comedy about the eternal quadrangle. Somewhat low-keyed in the first half, it springs to life in the second and reaches a tidy conclusion with one teasing loose end.
Oliver, a psychiatrist specializing in marriage counseling (he's even written a book called "Settled Out of Court"), and his wife Nora have rented the upper, grander half of a Southampton beach house from their friend Leo, an actor at liberty who lives below. It is early summer, and Oliver is checking galley proofs of his new book on the sun deck while Nora has taken the car, professedly to visit her mother down the beach and pick up some groceries, when a strange visitor comes to the door.
A distressed, waif-like creature named Carrie, she has trudged over from a neighboring beach house to unburden herself of the fact that Oliver's wife is actually at her house carrying on an affair with her husband begun some weeks back. Worse, the two seem to be in love. "Lunch Hour" is devoted to a ruse devised by Oliver and Carrie to straighten out the tangle, during the execution of which they become - well, slightly involved themselves.
Aside from a certain lack of energy in the early scenes, in spite of the expected share of funny lines from the Mrs. Kerr, and a concomitant loss of conviction in the central situation, the most disturbing thing about the work is the casting of the two female roles.
Susan Kellermann, who plays Nora, is so statuesque a creature that, immersed in his career or no, Oliver - he's given a polished performance by Sam Waterston - would surely never dare let her out of his sight, much less his mind. On the other hand, Gilda Radner, with a voice that sounds as if it has a two-note range, is only flickeringly appealing as the mistreated wife. She can get off a comedy line expertly (considering an offer to fly to Paris for her first trip abroad, she marvels, "We'll never have to order French-fried potatoes; they'll just come that way"), but it is essential that Carrie have charm as well as pertness, and I'm afraid Radner, making her Broadway legitimate debut (one-woman "personal appearance" shows don't count), comes across too flatly to make the part, and therefore the play, work as it should.
Waterston is constantly engaging, and Max Wright is entertaining as the fussbudget of a house owner who pops upstairs now and then to see that his plants are properly watered, and eventually to take a hand in solving the others' problems. David Rasche appears briefly as the young, blond, tanned and idle multi-millionaire husband of Carrie, whom he suspects he should have adopted rather than married.
Mike Nichols has staged "Lunch Hour" (the title is divertingly pertinent, especially to the snap finish) with cool precision, though pacing the first act a bit slowly, and with several fine comic flourishes. Oliver Smith's modern, elegantly functional beach house would easily command a sum enabling landlord Leo to remain out of work all the coming winter, and Jennifer Tipton's lighting, with a crescent moon in the evening, is designed for one of those infrequently perfect beach days and nights when papers don't blow around outdoors and the waters are invitingly calm. Ann Roth's costumes are well-conceived on the whole, though I doubt that the sharp contrast between the sleekly-dressed Nora and the dowdy-looking Carrie in Bea Lillie-like footwear, in this instance jogging shoes whether accompanying a loose white shirt in the first half or a dress in the second, was a sound idea.
Nevertheless, "Lunch Hour" is the author's most entertaining play in years.
Charm, honest insecure charm, is one of the theater's monstrous intangibles. Insecure or not, it is made as tangible as possible by Jean Kerr's self-styled in the Playbill "new comedy" - has anyone ever described themselves as writing an old comedy, do you think - Lunch Hour, which officially opened at the Ethel Barrymore Theater last night.
The play has at least one wonderful moment. The various actors are locked in a marital collision where no one quite knows who is going off with whom. It is a sex-comedy of manners, by the way.
Max Wright, who is playing an actor-landlord, very realistic in real estate and replete with a double-whammer humdinger joke regarding Shakespeare's Benvolio, tries to solve this special couple collision by way of ballot.
He looks tired, bewildered but essentially perky. He writes names on little bits of paper - adds his own for good luck - and places them in a pot. Later it transpires that on every five pieces of paper he had written his own name. The discovery is treasurable. It has a sense of reality to it, that is still not going to give realism precisely a bad name. Such as neo-realism.
Miss Kerr has written a play so paper-thin that one could advantageously use the paper to produce vest-pocket editions of the Bible. And the characters do not exactly hold together, even when they are trying to fall apart.
When Wright does his writing bit there is indeed a special humanity there - here is a man left out in the cold, in a set of mixed doubles, trying innocently enough to percolate his way in. The play's action suddenly warms up to graceful truth.
In Lunch Hour, Miss Kerr tells of two couples - unbeknownst to their partners - possibly indulging in mutual adulteries. It is a familiar theme - a couple of years back we had a Broadway farce called Cheaters, on Off-Broadway at present there is Charles Ludlum's Reverse Pyschology, and the movie Loving Couples explores much the same well-trod street.
Miss Kerr, however, wears her rue with a difference, her street with a streak. In her case - and I am not giving anything away, because as a critic I am scrupulous in refusing to embellish notices with a playwright's jokes - it is instantly apparent, and it is a neat touch, that the two wronged parties have never met before. They set up the possibility of an affair to endanger, and perhaps even entrap, their various errant spouses. What do you think will happen? Unfortunately, your guess will be as good as Miss Kerr's.
Miss Kerr is now obviously trying to emulate Neil Simon and to write comedies about real people and genuine situations. But it doesn't quite work.
Take the hero, Sam Waterston. An admirable actor who can play comedy as if it were part of some hidden tragic life. Even his ears seem to flap with indeterminate destiny.
Now, he has problems. For one thing he snores, and his wife sleeps in another room. For another thing he is a pyschiatric marriage counsellor who seems to know even less about marriage than about counseling. Then his wife - the gorgeous and ineffable Susan Kellermann - is cheating on him with a millionaire that only his closest friends would rate as high as dull.
Into this life - Waterston and Miss Kellerman are living for handsome summers in East Hampton, or for all I know possibly North-South-West Hampton, but one of those chic summer dormitory suburbs - emerges Gilda Radner.
She is made to look like an unexpected Manhattan bag-lady thrown up on some unlikely beach. We are asked to believe that this waif, but we are told about 100 pounds heavier, once netted a multi-millionaire and ridiculously handsome young husband. Not true. Not possible.
Indeed the impossibilities of the play are so legion that they soon contract legionaire's disease. If you see the play, watch a certain scene that pretends to take place between Waterston and Miss Radner in a supposed restaurant booth. If you can believe that, for God's sake watch out fo Santa Claus coming down the chimney next month, and change your name, by deed poll, to Virginia. And then go live there.
Mike Nichols seems to have directed the play not precisely in the wrong direction, but in a mood of furtive desperation. He appears to have encouraged - or not exactly discouraged - Miss Radner to do her various, and sometimes even varying, TV shticks, and no one is ever going to get a bad performance out of Sam Waterston, or, for that matter, the super-sexy Susan Kellerman and the simply super Max Wright.
The play is also magnificently designed by Oliver Smith. He has created exactly the sort of place I would love to live in, for at least a few days every year. It has style. It also has a fish tank - a very prominent fish tank. Now whether that fish tank was the concept of Miss Kerr, Nichols or Smith, I probably will never know. But those lovely fish certainly keep the play moving whenever the script doesn't.
Jean Kerr's new play, ''Lunch Hour,'' takes place in the present and is set in the hip and swinging Hamptons - but don't give such outward signs of trendiness another thought. Mrs. Kerr has written just the sort of old-fashioned comedy that one expects from the author of ''Mary, Mary'': a romantic entertainment in which the characters are as civilized and charming as the stylish couples who populated Broadway drawing rooms a generation ago. And why not? There's nothing wrong with the old forms when they're in loving hands. As written by Mrs. Kerr, directed by Mike Nichols and acted by the beguiling Gilda Radner and Sam Waterston, ''Lunch Hour'' is a very slight, very warm and most amusing diversion.
Miss Radner and Mr. Waterston play Carrie Sachs and Oliver DeVreck, summer people who meet as they discover that their spouses are off having an affair. ''Lunch Hour'' is about what happens when Carrie and Oliver decide to fight fire with smoke: They stage a mock affair of their own, hoping that jealousy will lure their wandering partners back home. At her best, Mrs. Kerr is as much concerned with the growth of her characters as with the machinations of her farcical, Coward-ish plot. As the immature Carrie and Oliver carry out their charade, they inevitably learn more about themselves and each other than they had bargained for.
Both characters are emotionally needy. Carrie is an insecure, shleppy child bride, married to a protective man (David Rasche) who is ''rich for a living.'' Carrie knows she's a ''beautiful person,'' but is also painfully aware that to be a beautiful person means, first of all, that she's not beautiful. Oliver is a cool, repressed psychiatrist, whose best-selling book, ''Settled Out of Court,'' has brought him fame as a marriage counselor but no aptitude for healing himself. As his humorless wife (Susan Kellermann) prosaically tells him, he's too busy analyzing emotions to have any of his own.
While we wait for Carrie and Oliver to let down their defenses in Act I, the playwright sends wisecracks ricocheting about the oceanfront DeVreck living room that has been elegantly designed by Oliver Smith. The jokes are hit-or-miss, and some of them (especially those dealing with diets and sex) are noticeably tired. Once Mrs. Kerr starts to dig into her people, the writing deepens without any loss of comic drive. Indeed, the touching first scene of Act II lifts ''Lunch Hour'' to another level entirely.
It's a scene in which Oliver and Carrie act out their fictive, lunch hour affair so that they can keep their phony story straight with their spouses later on. As these two lonely people pretend to be smooching in an imaginary French restaurant, they suddenly find it impossible to separate their real and invented feelings. Through it all, Mrs. Kerr delicately interweaves laughter and romance until she achieves a giddy mood of emotional disorientation worthy of Philip Barry. It's only appropriate that Oliver and Carrie soon take a moonlight swim that's exactly parallel to the one in Barry's ''The Philadelphia Story.''
With the aid of Jennifer Tipton's extraordinary, golden spectrum of sunset lighting, Mr. Nichols strikes the perfect balance between tenderness and humor. He also shows off his unbeatable timing in Mrs. Kerr's clever and satisfying final climax - an ending that makes fun of the play's old conventions and then fools us by making them work all over again. In the expository Act I, when there isn't always laughter in the lines, Mr. Nichols gives Miss Radner a series of klutzy sight gags to keep things moving, or at least busy. They'll pass, even if they do invite unwanted comparisons to Mr. Nichols's similar and fuller staging of Act I of ''The Odd Couple.''
The supporting cast is O.K., allowing for the fact that the secondary characters are mostly pills. Miss Kellermann is convincingly disagreeable as Oliver's stern wife, though one wonders where she gets off calling him cold. As Carrie's husband, Mr. Rasche must play a stereotyped jet-set dilettante whose friends have names like Binx and Bunny. When Mrs. Kerr belatedly humanizes him, the actor shifts gears a bit more gracefully than the writing does. Max Wright is also afoot, as a landlord whose wheezy neuroticism resembles that of every other character he's played in recent seasons. Mr. Wright's shtik may be funny for theatergoers who haven't seen it before.
The stars are more than funny; they're so enchanting that one doesn't even want to dream of ''Lunch Hour'' without them. Oliver may well be a part Mr. Waterston can do in his sleep, but he insists on rewarding it with an affecting complexity. At first he is reserved and wry; puckishly enough, he sounds just like Mike Nichols. When his sobriety begins to collapse under the weight of his confusing, newfound passions, the actor ever so gradually surrenders both his face and voice to joy. By the end, Mr. Waterston is leaping about like a punch-drunk schoolkid, and the intoxication is infectious.
Miss Radner, playing her first non-''Saturday Night Live'' role on Broadway, has come a long way since her canned Winter Garden revue of 1979. Her waiflike Carrie is a believable ''little match girl,'' as someone calls her - an unformed woman who drifts into emotional chaos beyond her understanding or control. Of course, Miss Radner does the comic business well - spilling coffee or spinning a comic discourse about the uses of back issues of Time magazine - but she also earns our empathy without, for once, begging for it. What's more, she pulls off the magical feat that must cap the evening: she eventually transforms herself into a beautiful person who really is beautiful. True, ''Lunch Hour'' is a light theatrical snack, but its stars just may charm you into believing it's a rich meal.