It's always disheartening to find deft farceurs in works unworthy of their talents, and the combined adroitness of Angela Lansbury and John McMartin can't make more than a trifling exercise of "A Little Family Business," which came to the Beck last evening.
This is an adaptation, by Jay Presson Allen, of a piece by those prolific writers of boulevard comedy, the French team of Barillet and Gredy, represented on Broadway in past seasons by "Cactus Flower" and "Forty Carats." But this is even thinner than those two comedies, and the final scenes, in which the predictable coincidences begin piling up on one another, are very heavy going.
In farce, and that is what "A Little Family Business" really is, the comic disclosures toward the finish must be perfectly timed to go off like a string of firecrackers. Instead, we get a string of duds.
Lansbury plays a woman married for 30 years to a man, McMartin, who runs a carpet-cleaner factory, one handed down from her family, with a despotic hand. It's a broadly comic role with a nasty edge to it, because the husband is not only an arch-conservative unable to listen to the word "Democrat" without turning blue, but a rabid racist as well, and his ethnic outbursts are more unpleasant than amusing. This is just one aspect of the play that makes it seem to stem from an earlier theatrical era - say, the '30s.
The play's motivation lies in Lansbury's ascendancy to the presidency of the Massachusetts firm when her husband, in a lunatic frenzy, suffers a heart attack and goes off on a three-month cruise with his equally hard-nosed and obnoxious daughter (Tracy Brooks Swope). In no time at all, Lansbury has averted a threatened strike, by improving working conditions, has increased the company's profits and is even thinking of entering politics by the time her husband, who has been stripped of his powers in his absence, returns home.
Double entendres and revelations of widespread philandering drop like bushels of overripe fruit all evening. A third figure in what becomes a lecherous triangle is a onetime factory employee (Theodore Sorel) who happens to be Italian and consequently is the butt of a stream of intended comic invective by McMartin and who has risen so far in politics that he is likely to be the state's next governor.
Lansbury's charm, thrust and almost awesome skill as a comedienne command our respect at all times, as does McMartin's wildly erratic behavior, but they (especially McMartin) are left high and dry before the evening is near done.
The other principals - Sorel as the politico who irons out the labor problems in return for a favor; Sally Stark as the husband's secretary-mistress, and Swope and Anthony Shaw as the grown children - are adequate, I suppose, to their paper-thin parts, though a little more charm would have helped here and there. A works committee of four from the plant puts in a brief appearance as Lansbury takes over the operation.
Martin Charnin has staged the feeble concoction with no appreciable skill. Set, costumes and lighting all set the right tone for farce; and, as a matter of fact, when the curtain rises on Lansbury half-heartedly following some TV body-building instructions, there is a certain promise in the air, but it quickly evaporates.
Imagine Angela Lansbury, sweetly smiling as a benevolent New England matriarch, presiding over her gracious country home. Imagine John McMartin as an unreconstructed macho chauvinist porker who runs the adjoining factory. Lansbury's idea of bliss is mail-order catalogues from the likes of Neiman-Marcus and secretly subscribing to subversive liberal causes such as whale-saving.
McMartin believes that anyone to the left of Atila the Hun is in the direct pay of the Kremlin, that the opposite sex has been created by divine Providence for his specific dalliance, and, that apart, the best indoor sport known to a red-blooded American is beating up union officials.
An oddly assorted couple perhaps. They are the bulwarks of the new and excessively flimsy boulevard comedy A Little Family Business, which opened at the Martin Beck Theater last night.
The play has been adapted from those agile and calculating French pair of playwrights, Pierre Barillet and Jean-Pierre Gredy, who earlier provided the spirited Gallic basis for those Broadway cocktails, Cactus Flower and Forty Carats.
In short, they construct at length plays generically known in France as "boulevard comedies" - because they play in boulevard theaters rather than, say, the Comedie Francaise. It is a useful and, by no means, intrinsically disparaging term.
If comedy is the art of the unexpected, in this poor, but often affluent, relation boulevard comedy, it is the unexpected that must be expected. Comedy surprises. Boulevard comedy confirms.
It is a world where every worm turns with Pavlovian automation, where every dog has its day, where nothing is what it seems to be, and no package should be judged by its wrapping.
Here, for example, McMartin, who so easily confuses the factory floor with the sands of Iwo Jima, is not really a captain of industry - but a bumbling womanizer who inherited his factory, home and position by marrying the boss' daughter - the fair Lansbury.
Nor is Lansbury exactly the matronly figure you might first imagine. Even her past is not entirely blameless - and when she is called upon to run the factory in her husband's enforced absence, guess whether she will do a better job of it or not? Precisely...now you know exactly what boulevard comedy is.
The adaptation by Jay Presson Allen is so wholeheartedly Yankee that you would now scarcely divine its Parisian origins. However, the play is still as thin as a paper parasol in a blizzard if scarcely as delicate.
It is, in a word, trash. Yet modestly well-served trash, that should prove a perfectly acceptable, even desirable, substitute for prime-time situation comedy on television.
Of course you can't talk through it, and the performances by Lansbury and particularly McMartin are so good that you might find them distracting. Director Martin Charnin has displayed these fine actors to their maximum effectiveness.
Lansbury in the full bloom of her second youth, looking like a ripe pear and sounding like a crisp apple, is in expansive command of the play. From her first mimed breakfast scene - toying with physical jerks on the TV - to her curtain calls the audience is in the palm of her gloved fist. She can even get a terrific, and legitimate laugh, from a line such as "I never heard of anything so rude!"
But this is the season of the "also-starring" male - who are making plays into gift packages for themselves. First we had Joseph Maher in 84 Charing Cross Road, then William Converse-Roberts in Monday After Miracle - two also stars who didn't notice their billing.
Now we have McMartin also effectively running away with large chunks of the almost non-existent play, with a superbly timed and glitteringly polished portrait of the fool-husband.
Whether he is having glavanic, spastic heart spasms, leering happily into a girl-filled future, or giving the family the back of his mind, McMartin is all craziness in sanity's clothing.
This play is not much of a tune- but Lansbury and McMartin really succeed, to an astonishingly extent, in making it hum.
It would be unjust to say that ''A Little Family Business,'' the comedy that brought Angela Lansbury back to Broadway last night, is the worst production in a poor theater season. After all, those with long memories can still recall the summer's ''Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.'' So let's be fair and just say that ''A Little Family Business'' is the season's worst nonmusical play. It's definitely the thing to see once you've exhausted all the all-night movies on 42d Street.
The principal perpetrator of this piece of goods, now on display at the Martin Beck, appears to be Jay Presson Allen, who has adapted a Parisian boulevard farce by Pierre Barillet and Jean-Pierre Gredy. Mrs. Allen is, one assumes, no fool: she did a fine job of adapting Muriel Spark's ''The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie'' for the theater and of rewriting the musical ''Cabaret'' for Hollywood. In a less inspired moment, she also adapted another Barillet-Gredy opus into ''Forty Carats'' in the late 1960's. Though ''Forty Carats'' did seem execrable at the time, ''A Little Family Business'' now gives us the perspective to see that it was, relatively speaking, a classic of its kind.
The current play, which Mrs. Allen has plunked down in a Boston suburb, is the tale of an authoritarian carpet-sweeper manufacturer, Ben Ridley (John McMartin) and his dithering wife, Lillian (Miss Lansbury). Ben suffers a mild heart seizure - performed as slapstick on stage, no less - thus prompting Lillian, who has previously demonstrated no aptitude for business, to take over the corporate helm. The rest of the plot has to do with the couple's history of extramarital entanglements and the resultingly confused paternity of their son. Among the possible fathers is a future governor of Massachusetts.
Mrs. Allen never does convince us that this play is taking place in the United States: the marriage of open philandering shared by the otherwise bourgeois Ridleys and the management-labor strife that erupts at the carpet-sweeper factory are entirely Gallic in character. But this and the many other failures of craft, from the inept and poorly paced plotting to the fizzled scene endings, are the least of the evening's sins.
The butts of almost all the jokes are minority groups - especially Italian-Americans and homosexuals. The rationale for this pattern of comic attack is that Ben, who delivers most of the wisecracks, is a reactionary - an upper-class Archie Bunker. But the character is too crudely and cynically drawn to leaven the ugliness of his sentiments. Nor does it help that Mrs. Allen disingenuously tries to cancel out her previous tastelessness by closing the play with a ringing paean to feminism. In this context, such a last-minute sermon is about as inspirational as a wedding service in Reno.
Heaven knows that ''A Little Family Business'' has received just the production it deserves. The only way it could be worse is if Herman van Veen came on to sing. Martin Charnin's direction is so coarse that, next to this play, a typical episode of ''I Love Lucy'' looks as if it had been produced by the Comedie Francaise. The motley supporting cast is an insult to the venerable theatrical institution of amateur night.
Mr. McMartin, an actor of proved refinement, contributes some embarrassing, eye-popping mugging as Ben - a role that only Barry Nelson should play and that perhaps Mr. Nelson had the good sense to turn down. Miss Lansbury admirably keeps her wits about her and looks fetching in a wide variety of Theoni V. Aldredge gowns. In the best of the four or five good moments she's allowed, she does a delicate piece of mime in which, with the crossing of her legs and the repositioning of her head, she instantly transforms herself from a sedentary hausfrau into a proper business executive. But only a sadist could enjoy watching this angelic actress dance on the head of so nasty a little pin.