I'd give anything to be able to applaud Percy Granger's "Eminent Domain," which came to the Circle in the Square last evening, for it gives the impression throughout of being a thoughtful, literate and, in conventional terms, well-constructed work. And I do applaud Philip Bosco's versatile and incisive performance of a college prof in crisis. But the play is synthetic and unfocused, and it seems to be slipping away even while it appears to be driving home points. In the end, I'm afraid, it is something of a bore.
A stale air of the library - of old plays, of Shaw tinctured with O'Neill and others - clings to it.
Holmes Bradford, a 62-year-old poetry professor in a midwestern university distinguished primarily for its unbeaten football team, is eagerly awaiting the offer of a chair at Brandeis and a return to the beloved East where he can close out his career in dignity. But there are complications. They center largely around the arrival from New York of a young writer who hopes to make his name with a book about the son of the Bradfords, a 24-year-old poet who left home at 16 and hasn't been heard from since, other than in print, but who may very well win a Pulitzer for his latest volume.
The writer, who has presented himself as the author of a scholarly dissertation rather than a potential best seller, is invited by Bradford to spend his time in the house rather than seek out a motel. What he discovers is that the mother, Katie, once a fine painter, became an alcoholic who switched to speed and is now simply withdrawn. And that Bradford himself drinks on the sly and is about to become involved in a campus scandal due to his refusal to approve tenure for a popular instructor. And that the son was a brat whose genius wasn't evident until he left home and began publishing.
The writer leaves, rather sorry he came at all. Bradford never got around to reading the "dissertation," which had been sent in advance, and the mother insists on being left entirely out of the work. Finally, the New York publisher decides that he doesn't, after all, want an introduction to the book by Bradford.
I wasn't sure why any of this, and innumerable other little things, were happening in this attennuated play drawn out over six scenes in two acts. Nor could I understand why there was suddenly a kind of happy ending, as if Candida had sent Marchbanks packing and turned into a rejuvenated Mary Tyrone. Everything seemed second-hand, and the characters, though continually poked, remained lifeless.
The play, maybe because something of the sort that took place at the time came to the author's attention, is set in February 1975. Or maybe it has just been tinkered with all these years.
Bosco gives another of his intensely involved, vital performances, never missing a move whether slumping on a radiator cover, sneaking bourbon, or berating a wife who seems to have lost all interest in life. And Betty Miller is excellent, too, in the flimsy role of the wife whose restraint is broken late in the evening. John Vickery gives a smooth performance as the visiting snoop, or writer, and Scott Burkholder is amusing as a freshman who has to con his way into Bradford's class to make a fraternity, while Paul Collins makes what he can of the slight role of the rejected teacher.
Paul Austin has staged the play in a straightforward, leisurely manner, and in a sprawling set that encompasses Bradford's study and other portions of the house which, in this theater's curious design, seem to extend all the way out into 50th St.
"Eminent Domain" is a play that keeps you waiting all evening long for something dramatically significant to take place, but it never does.
Percy Granger's Eminent Domain, which opened at the Circle in the Square yesterday, is an attempt, and a good one, at what is fast becoming an extinct species. The well-made play. The play with a beginning, and middle and an end. In that order.
It is also a play where people speak in that heightened theatricality typical of old-fashioned plays, it has a couple of exemplary sub-plots to help the main story along its way, and its surprises are as carefully marked as road signs.
It is also well-written, particularly within the specifics of its genre, literately amusing, offers its actors succulently juicy roles, and all in all adds up to very satisfying, it comfortably unshattering evening in the theater.
The story is, naturally, anchored in the play's past. As are, for this is the point of post-Ibsenite realistic drama, the characters. They are all explained, as is the plot, but in events that occurred before the rise of the curtain - and detective-story fashion they challenge our interest.
The hero is a worthy, but eccentric academic. His wife is a sometime painter, an a recycled alcoholic. And there is a mysterious young son, who left home at 16, has never contacted his parents since, and, now, at the ripe age of 25 is likely to win a Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.
It is the son, appropriately enough still in absentia, who motivates the plot. A cub-like, brilliantly promising graduate student comes from Harvard to the Professor's Mid-Western college, to interview the distinguished scholar on his son's poetry and early life. He is writing a thesis - but in anticipation of the expected Pulitzer and its attendant publicity - has also arranged to have it commercially published.
What is the secret behind the son's desertion? There is another theme, that of the professor's relationship with his wife and whether or not he will get a hoped-for chair at Brandeis. There are also two neatly interlocking subplots - both bearing on the professor's character, one involving an insensitive student, and another concerned with a popular teacher.
Granger knows how to construct a play. Yet nothing much happens during the actual course of Eminent Domain. Neither situation nor our perception of the characters is changed, and even the revelations are small and fairly predictable.
Granger is here making an awful lot out of awfully little, but he does the conjuring trick with style and an urbane ease. There is something engagingly civilized about the play - it is practically well-bred.
It is this gentle quality of good breeding that Paul Austin has crystalized in his unfussy, direct direction. Helped by Michael Miller's two-level setting, which copes with the theater's scenic problems very creditably, Austin acquires some credibly intelligent performances, particularly from Philip Bosco as the beleagured Professor, and Betty Miller as the abstracted painter of the wife, two delicately guilt-edged performances that are as good as gold.
The younger world, led by an abrasively ambitious John Vickery as the couple's inquisitor, and Scott Burkholder and Paul Collins as the playwright's illustrative intruders, also maintain, with some humor, the specific gravity demanded by these groves of academe.
It is an agreeable evening rather than a compelling one, yet should not be missed by anyone anxious to watch the first major league steps of a playwright who just might be wearing 10 league boots. Granger is a man of old-fashioned promise, which might stand him in good stead in a new-fashioned world.
Percy Granger's ''Eminent Domain,'' at the Circle in the Square, proves at least one thing - that its exemplary star, Philip Bosco, is ready and able to play a terrific George in ''Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?'' In a sense, he already is. Mr. Granger's protagonist, like Edward Albee's, is a middle-aged college professor with a stalled career, a fractured marriage and a mysteriously absent son. Mr. Bosco's performance - cresting steadily from tweedy wooliness to lacerating wit to bourbon-fueled rage - is an expert tour through a consciousness that's only one tiny, last-ditch step ahead of final defeat.
Good as the actor is, however, he's left at sea by Mr. Granger, who fails to give his hero a dramatic context. If we believe in Holmes Bradford, as Mr. Bosco's professor is named, we don't believe in the other characters and ghosts who batter him from every side at the Middle Western ''cow college'' where ''Eminent Domain'' is set. Mr. Granger can write with intelligence and feeling, as he proved in his one-act ''Vivien'' at Lincoln Center last season, but, Holmes aside, his work here lacks texture, depth and shape, if not wit.
The author's ambitions are high. Though the play's moribund academic milieu recalls both ''Virginia Woolf'' and ''Butley,'' Mr. Granger has attempted to weave an O'Neill family drama. Holmes's wife, Katie (Betty Miller), is nothing if not a Mary Tyrone; once a promising artist, she lost her career after a doctor hooked her on amphetamines. And, though Katie's bout with drugs and booze is over when the play opens, her marriage to Holmes is nonetheless a dead issue. It ended eight years earlier, when the Bradfords' son, Wendell, ran away from home at age 16, never to return.
Wendell, it turns out, is now a famous poet and Thomas Pynchon-like recluse on the verge of winning a Pulitzer Prize. Mr. Granger's plot is about what happens when an ambitious young Harvard scholar, Victor Salt (John Vickery), invades the Bradfords' home to interview Holmes and Katie about their son's formative years. Victor has written a dissertation about Wendell, and he needs to add biographical ''spice'' to sell his thesis to a commercial publisher. Inevitably, his attempts to appropriate the Bradfords' private past for public consumption - by eminent domain, as it were - force Holmes and Katie to face the long-buried truths about their relationships with each other and their runaway son.
Unfortunately, it takes Mr. Granger 90 minutes of repetitive exposition in Act I to reach his half-hour of thunder in Act II. Once we live through the long day's journey to get to the drunken night of revelations, the wait doesn't seem worth it. Wendell, we finally learn, was ''brilliant like a diamond'' but devoid of ''human feeling''; Holmes speeded his son's departure by neglecting him to write a tome on American poetry. Yet we don't get a specific sense of the unseen Wendell's personality, and we never believe that the son and his parents ever shared the same household. Nor do either Mr. Granger or Miss Miller successfully penetrate Katie's alternately catatonic and self-pitying facade to reveal the true pain of her wounds.
The visiting scholar, meanwhile, presents severe credibility problems. It doesn't wash that Victor would cheapen a scholarly work with People-magazine gossip to make a buck, or that Holmes would allow this total stranger to camp out in his study over his wife's protests. And while Victor also seems a figurative stand-in for the Bradfords' son, he's no more fully characterized than Wendell is. A humorless, caricatured opportunist, he remains but a playwright's device and defies Mr. Vickery's concerted attempts to humanize him.
There are other contrivances, too. Much is made of a junior faculty member (Paul Collins) who crosses Holmes - but he remains only a symbolic reincarnation of what the hero must have been like in his early, more rebellious teaching days. When the young Turk leads his students in demonstrations, we're asked to believe that Holmes would respond by suddenly abandoning his fuddy-duddy ways to play tennis nude in the snow. This cathartic act of liberation in turn leads to an equally farfetched reconciliation between Holmes and Katie - a jarringly unearned happy ending.
Paul Austin's graceful staging licks the Circle in the Square's problematic geography, as does Michael Miller's household set. The most dramatic scene is an extraneous one, in which Holmes confronts a callow freshman (well done by Scott Burkholder). The best moments mainly belong to Mr. Bosco. While the star is the perfect incarnation of an embittered, wintry academic, he also shows us the springier, idealistic Holmes in a lovely speech of reminiscence about teaching battle-bound students during World War II. ''It's the minor triumphs that keep us going,'' he says at one point, and although Mr. Bosco's minor triumphs don't exactly keep Mr. Granger's static play going, they're to be applauded all the same.