If the lack you sense in your family life is harsh bickering, don't wait to take in "Grown Ups," a serio-comedy by Jules Feiffer that opened last night at the Lyceum. It should fill your sorry needs at least through the holidays.
Feiffer can write with humor and a fair degree of accuracy, though neither the lines nor situations in "Grown Ups" rings entirely true. This nagging work is basically concerned with the rotten mess parents make of bringing up children. The family that preys on each other stays together seems to be his credo.
It is a play full of undeveloped themes. But essentially it is the story of Jake (Bob Dishy), a New York Times feature writer who dwells with his wife Louise (Cheryl Giannini) and their eight-year-old daughter Edie (Jennifer Dundas) on West End Ave., and who is writing a book tracing the "disintegration of the American dream" back to the cold war. You can tell he works for The Times because there's no TV in the living room, but an Agatha Christie paperback in use.
When we first meet Jake it is in the kitchen of the New Rochelle home of his housewifely sister Marilyn (Kate McGregor-Stewart), who is entertaining the family. Louise has remained in the city with Edie, but Jake's (and Marilyn's) parents, Jack (Harold Gould) and Helen (Frances Sternhagen), are there. It is suggested that both Jake and Jack have a drinking problem, but that isn't developed. What is developed is a deep-seated feeling of alienation on Jake's part, and to a lesser degree on Marilyn's, toward their parents, who talk in platitudes. Jack is forever asking "What's new?" and Helen is forever chiding. Andrew Jackness' cheery set and Paul Gallo's sunny lighting were evidently felt essential to lighten this dreary scene.
The rest of the play takes place later with Jake having given up drinking (so has Jack, following a heart attack) and with the book now in galley proofs. Jake and Louise quarrel bitterly about their child; she feels he bends to Edie's every whim and he feels she pays too little attention to the girl. The closing scene takes place on the following Sunday when Marilyn and the parents have come to visit. More bickering, building to almost open warfare and, finally, to a couple of declarations by Jake - they're like a one-two punch - that shock the whole family and bring the curtain down rather arbitrarily on an exceedingly untidy, though insistent, piece of playwriting.
While the family is quite evidently meant to be a middle-class Jewish one, the ethnic aspect isn't stressed, either because Feiffer feels the situation is general or because he didn't want to give in to touches of easy humor. Nevertheless, the ethnic humor is latent in much of the play, and might better have been allowed richer expression. As it is, we get some pure examples and some not-so-pure ones (mother to son: "If we gave you all the privacy you wanted, today you wouldn't know a soul").
But beneath the general lack of understanding among these people, and the theme of parents' insufficiency, "Grown Ups" is really a work about several very selfish people, the most selfish of all being Jake, who must somehow feel the need to fulfill himself, even at everybody else's expense. The real play here lies too deep in the background.
Dishy, who created his role in a regional theater production, is quite good as Jake, and Cheryl Giannini, who was also in the earlier production, makes an extremely effective and appealing Louise. Harold Gould is perfectly in character as the haberdasher father, but Frances Sternhagen, though she gives a very assured performance is woefully miscast as the mother. Kate McGregor-Stewart plays the relatively minor part of the sister engagingly, and Jennifer Dundas is that rare commodity, a child actress who is not only unobjectionable but actually likable in a slightly bratty role.
John Madden's direction is obvious but acceptable.
"Grown Ups" shows us how ingrown and vicious family relationships can become, but shows us little else. It is a play full of larger implications shied away from.
One idly supposes that Jules Feiffer writes comedies, although one equally idly suspects that he does not. Perhaps he sees himself as a Neil Simon for grown-ups, although he might well shudder at that thought. Simon is not well-liked in the intellectual set.
Incidentally, Feiffer's new play is actually called Grown Ups. It opened at the Lyceum Theater last night, and despite its supposedly fearlessly frank ending I am confident it is meant to be funny. Indeed there is even one genuinely funny joke - it is about privacy and comes at around 10:05. Better late than never.
Does one have to like characters in a comedy? I think so. From Plautus to Shakespeare to Orton, the comedians have been likeable guys. Now the hero and heroine of Grown Ups are conceivably the theater's most unpleasant duo since the Macbeths. But everyone in the play is someone to be avoided at all costs. They are ugly-hearted cliches.
Now I am not saying that Feiffer did not grow up in a Jewish household exactly like the one depicted here - although if he did it was extraordinarily careless of him. Doubtless in real life people do say: "Am I right, or am I right?" It may even be one of Feiffer's favorite expressions - but it is a joke of debased coinage.
He even treats us to a Philadelphia joke and a Groucho Marx imitation. Not a moment of dog-eared unreality in urban American/Jewish folklore is missed. Half-truths pitter-patter like rain drops.
The hero - so tortured it seems that he can't raise the guts to go to the shrink that surely awaits him - is a reporter on the New York Times. And he is writing a book - approved by David Halberstam and John Kenneth Galbraith, no less - on the "moral and ethical disintegration of the American dream - basically." This guy hasn't got the brains to be a good copy boy - he is a bundle of neuroses tied up with cheap abrasiveness.
The theme of the play is that hoary old monster the generation gap. Jake's life has been ruined by his horribly oppressive parents, Helen and Jack. They are awful. But then it is one of those plays where everyone deserves everyone else.
Now we all know that Feiffer can write good satirical plays - his Little Murders and The White House Murder Case early on marked him out as a dramatic talent with a genuinely barbed taste for political satire. But his attempts to write a parable - Knock, Knock! - and this self-indulgent naturalistic drama have merely a manic, at times splenetic energy that tires rather than enlightens.
John Madden has directed the play entirely on one level of heat, which is probably what the playwright wanted, and the settings by Andrew Jackness - New Rochelle and West End Avenue - resemble nothing so much as backgrounds for TV commercials, which may also have been requested.
As for the actors, all of them highly accomplished, the poor dears have all been given the wrong end of an ethnic shtick and try to run with it as if it were a peculiarly juicy bone. Even some poor young kid playing an emergent, lower-drawer Jewish American Princess is permitted to carry odiousness beyond the rights of the species.
One exception. Don't ask me how he does it, but even when he is mugging with the worst of them, Bob Dishy somehow gives the embattled reporter some crazy vulnerability and a precious touch of credibility. But it is a disappointing play. I mean, when did you last hear a good joke about an enema - I mean a joke that was meant to be funny, not merely descriptive.
''Grown Ups'' is a new play by Jules Feiffer, and, yes, it is funny - savagely funny. That's Mr. Feiffer's way. But the laughter has a different ring this time - about halfway up the throat it turns into a gasp.
This is no exaggeration. No matter how inured you may be to Mr. Feiffer's style, you still may not be quite prepared for the ferocious comedy that opened at the Lyceum last night. In ''Grown Ups,'' Mr. Feiffer has narrowed his focus from the social fabric of modern America to the psychological fabric of one Jewish-American family. And by turning inward, he has written his most moving and provocative work. Mr. Feiffer is out for blood in ''Grown Ups,'' and he won't quit until he gets it. Indeed, this play soon becomes one long piercing cry of rage.
The embodiment of that rage is Jake, a New York Times reporter brilliantly played by Bob Dishy. ''Grown Ups'' unfolds over a year in which he prods his seemingly happy life until it falls apart. What does Jake have to complain about? On the surface, not much. He has a fine wife, a precocious 9-year-old daughter, an immaculate Upper West Side apartment and parents who dote on his every word. His career is in high gear: he's just begun his magnum opus, a book about ''the moral and ethical disintegration of the American dream.''
When we first meet Jake, he is right in the center of that dream. Mr. Feiffer's Act I is set in the New Rochelle kitchen of the hero's sister (Kate McGregor-Stewart) - a sunny, spic-and-span picture of suburban bliss. Jake's family has gathered for a party, and his parents, Helen (Frances Sternhagen) and Jack (Harold Gould), can't get enough of their middle-aged son and his accomplishments. When Jake announces that he is not only writing a book but is also interviewing Henry Kissinger for Esquire, his grasping mother and Willy Loman of a father swoon with joy.
Yet something is wrong, and Jake knows it. No matter how successful he may be, he can never satisfy his parents. When his mother recovers from her swoon, she immediately starts to look forward to the day when ''Henry Kissinger will interview Jake.'' And, as ''Grown Ups'' gathers force, we see that the American dream is not just disintegrating in the world beyond -but within Mr. Feiffer's protagonist. Jake hates himself for having lived by his parents' values - like Helen and Jack, he has pursued success because it is easier to achieve than love.
But what can be done? As the hero half-jokingly tells his sister, he can't escape his parents' legacy by killing them: that's a ''short-range solution.'' Nor can he talk to them; they hear him only when he has a new accomplishment to recite.
As ''Grown Ups'' moves from New Rochelle to Jake's apartment, the hero decides instead to sever every bond in his life. What follows are two grueling battles in which Jake lashes out at his wife, Louise (Cheryl Giannini), and then at his parents. By the end, Jake's storms have kindled a full conflagration: Three generations of a family are locked in an unstoppable round-robin of emotional mayhem - spewing out the previously unarticulated hostilities of five lifetimes at a Sunday brunch.
Mr. Feiffer's Freudian stance is not new, of course: in every miserable grown-up like Jake, there is still the miserable child he can't escape. Nor is the Jewish family of ''Grown Ups'' particularly novel. While the playwright has his own bitter variations, Helen and Jack - products of their own legacy from ''the old country'' - are of a piece with the fearsome parents in the novels of Philip Roth and Joseph Heller.
What gives ''Grown Ups'' its force is its author's ability to construct his exit-less maze of emptiness and guilt in precise, theatrically daring terms. With Strindbergian verve, he strips away exposition and other debris of the conventional well-made play to achieve emotional versimilitude. There are no scenes of ''plot'' or ''character development.'' Instead of tidying up and explaining his protagonist's crisis, Mr. Feiffer plunges into it - demanding that the audience follow, kicking and questioning if need be, behind him.
When his characters fight, the battles are triggered not by story twists but by trivial incidents, as happens in life. It's when Louise gets impatient with a Miss Marple mystery or when Helen gives her granddaughter the wrong Dr. Seuss book that Acts II and III explode. And again as in life, the battles don't build to satisfying climaxes. Even threats of suicide and divorce - or, for that matter, declarations of love - can't resolve a circular argument in which Jake finds it impossible to separate his feelings about his wife from those about his mother. All he can do is scream ''Stop! Stop! Stop!''
In the calmer Act I, Mr. Feiffer makes us listen to the same innocuous anecdote - about a misbegotten dinner party - three times. Why? By changing the storyteller and the listeners each time as the characters drift in and out of the kitchen, he elliptically lays out the emotional geography of the entire family.
So keen is Mr. Feiffer's sense of language that he can create much of his drama by indirection. Characters are often defined by their use of English - or by the manner in which they correct each other's usage - and they rarely say what they really mean. Mr. Feiffer takes the most familiar tribal greetings - ''So what's new?'' or ''When am I going to see my granddaughter?'' - and forces us to see the resentments and hurts that fester underneath. It's when we see the gap that separates such lines from the truth that our laughter curdles.
''Grown Ups'' originated at Harvard's American Repertory Theater, then, as now, under the relentless direction of John Madden. For New York, Jake's parents and sister have been recast. Mr. Gould is superb as Jack - a stooped, avuncular figure until he is provoked to flail about as pitifully as a gored bull. As Helen, Miss Sternhagen tries to keep caricature at bay by masking the mother's venom under a veneer of elegant cuteness. While this adventurous performance sometimes goes overboard, the actress often brings to her role a complexity - and even a glimmer of appeal - that at times is absent in the writing. Miss McGregor-Stewart is perfect as the sister - the forgotten loser in a family that prizes its first-born son.
Mr. Dishy, always a Feiffer drawing made flesh, inhabits Jake so completely that Miss Giannini's sweet but occasionally blurry Louise no longer seems a match for him in Act II. Like the playwright, Mr. Dishy retains his neurotic comic style, but he, too, digs deeper. Time after time, we watch his Jake take a deep swallow to contain his anger - only to look at his face minutes later and find the anger welling up again in his pinched eyes. When it does pour out, his voice rises beyond venom into a bottomless sob.
Mr. Madden's staging reaches a harrowing peak in Act III when Jake and Louise's innocent daughter (Jennifer Dundas) emerges from her bedroom to land smack in her elders' crossfire. Throughout, the director is aided by Andrew Jackness's sets and Paul Gallo's lighting. At first glance, Mr. Jackness's kitchen and living room look realistic to the last detail, but, like the play, they strip reality down to its core. Framed by blackness, the sets have jagged edges, claustrophobic perspectives and raked floors that seem to throw the characters into our laps. Yes, everything may look bright and sunny when the curtain goes up, but don't be fooled: ''Grown Ups'' is poised to slice through the audience like a knife.