If either Richard Dreyfuss, the star; Larry Atlas, the writer; Jack Hofsiss, the director, or I, watching their work, could figure out just what makes Lenny Keller tick - why, then, "Total Abandon," the shabby little excuse for a play that came to the Booth last evening, might at least make partial sense.
Keller, a polite and reasonable sounding loony, except for a climactic emotional display - I hasten to say that the part is played with considerable resourcefulness and skill on Dreyfuss' part - has been jailed for beating his infant son into an "irreversible vegetative coma" during a sudden rage. He is now in the lockup of a midwestern courthouse where, with the help of a court-appointed lawyer, he is preparing to appeal a court decision to pull the plug on the life-support system keeping the small, crushed body alive in the narrowest sense. Why is Keller doing this: out of remorse or to forestall a probable trial for murder? In any event, he loeses, for by the time we return to our seats for the second half, the appeal has been denied and the plug is pulled shortly thereafter.
We never do get a truly satisfactory answer to that question or to any others of importance. For example, the fact that Keller would surely lose custody of his child, should there be a miraculous recovery, would indicate a shrewd motive behind Keller's appeal. But Atlas doesn't see it that way. In a series of hammer-like blows, he tells us of Keller's rejection by fellow workers at the auto plant where he is employed parking cars as they roll off the assembly line, or his rejection by neighbors on his block after his wife left him when the child was a mere 3 months old, of his own father's contemptuous attitude toward women, of his wife-beating episodes (only glancingly referred to, but the reason for her leaving, we must assume), and, finally, of his own need to be hurt, as he now will be by the law.
Lending a false air of importance to the play's meretricious employment of the subject of child abuse is its arty presentation. Presumably guided by the awareness that a small-town lockup wouldn't look like much on a Broadway stage, designer David Jenkins has created a severe and imposing set consisting of a white playing area containing seven polished-wood conference chairs, this area backed by a wire wall with a wire cell-door in the middle, the whole set, extending to the back wall, overhung with shielded lamps. While Keller paces about his "cage," or sits in it meditating on his past and the meaning of "love," his lawyer (Clifton James), his own psychiatrist (George N. Martin) talk across him, standing stiffly at either side of the stage, talk with him while eliciting facts or conveying information, and, at one point late in the play, lean toward him threateningly, three hostile figures in suddenly, and absurdly, stylized attitudes.
And there are other pretentious attempts to make a play out of this very unfocused situation, including an echo-chamber voice-over effect in which Keller seems momentarily inhabited by the body of his loutish (or was he?) father, and the habit of Jack Hofsiss, who has over-staged the entire slim effort, of forcing his actors (the four mentioned make up the entire cast) along mostly straight lines (all but Dreyfuss) and into sharp, military-like turns.
Throughout the evening - and particularly, of course, in the late scene in which he painfully reenacts the monstrous assault on the son he loves and holds so hard he can hear the skull crack, Dreyfuss brings everything he has - and it's a great deal - to his amorphous role. But "Total Abandon" is cheap stuff masquerading as serious-minded drama.
Any play that ends with an actor virtually sobbing out: "This is my Boy!" is unlikely to be all good. Unless it stars the ghost of Al Jolson.
Total Abandon, which opened last night at the Booth Theater, is almost a total loss. It stars, by the way, Richard Dreyfuss, who is not the ghost of Al Jolson, but is a remarkable actor, with, for a contemporary film superstar, a heartening and ongoing commitment to the stage.
On this time out, however, Dreyfuss is more self-indulgent than he needs to be. On the other hand this play, a first Broadway effort by Larry Atlas, gives him almost every excuse to be, and the staging by Jack Hofsiss also is heavy on the mayonnaise.
The play's idea is not a bad one -not good, but not bad. A young man has been abandoned by his wife, and left with a young son. Rejected by friends and neighbors, he is intended as one of nature's misfits. In a moment of despair and rage, some terrible impulse of impotence, he abuses his child. Indeed, by dashing its head against the wall he virtually kills him.
The boy is alive - but only narrowly - when the play opens in a Midwestern courthouse. The child's life is being sustained by life support systems, but he is, in effect, a vegetable, in a coma from which he is unlikely ever to recover. The question is, and it has to be decided by the court, whether or not the support system should be removed, and the child permitted to die. The father is pleading to the judge - with the help of a court appointed attoney - for his son's life.
What are his motives?
Obviously he is going to face criminal charges, but if the kid is allowed to die, they will presumably be those of homicide. So is he genuinely contrite at his desperate action, or is he merely trying to cop a lesser charge? And is there indeed, as the court must decide, any point in the child's survival.
This play is far less deep than it can be made to sound. Though the story is horribly conceivable, the writing is strangely banal and unconvincing.
The man could be sympathetically portrayed, but he is drowned in a shallow pond of self-pity. And the people around him - his accuser, his reluctant, but competent defense attorney who despises his action, and the medical expert, are all see in fairly simplistic terms.
The staging with its stark set, more like a prison than a courthouse, by David Jenkins, has something of the same imagist fluidity, assisted by Beverly Emmons', as always, beautiful lighting, that characterized Hofsiss' now famous staging of The Elephant Man.
But nothing can disguise the fact that while the story is an update - child abuse and life support systems are, unfortunately, topics of our time - the writing is like a Warner Bros. movie of the '30s. It almost looks as though it has been staged in a rather grainy black and white.
And Hofsiss has indulged his actors almost as much as they have indulged themselves. Even the normally spartan and sparing George N. Martin can be observed subtly moving toward the ham side of melodrama. But, of course, consider the alternative. It would mean unplugging the play.
It is a fine cast. Martin's outraged reticence may be justifiably exaggerated, as in some ways are the splendid reluctance of Clifton James, as Dreyfuss' attorney, and John Heard, who decently, even torturedly accusatory, cuts a fine figure out of a cypher.
As for Dreyfuss, he at times goes too far, indeed he goes too far with almost total abandon. But he is a wonderful actor, and no one could accuse him of lack of courage. He plays the play to the hilt.
Also - and there were too few rehearsals and previews of the show, which was originally workshopped with another actor, the formidable Jeffrey DeMunn - so there is a tendency for everyone to go with the play's faults, which center around the melodramatic writing, rather than its virtues that provide a story of genuine human interest. Newspapers would probably put it on their front page. But not as a play - and not a play seen in the monochrome of certainty.
You know what is going to happen from the beginning - and it is somewhat tedious getting to the end. And Dreyfuss really isn't Al Jolson. Nevertheless it's nice to have him on Broadway, and, for that matter, let's be fair, it's nice to see a seriously intended play.
For a while laughter is the best defense against ''Total Abandon,'' the preposterous new melodrama at the Booth. Almost nothing in it makes sense -starting with the facts that Richard Dreyfuss agreed to star in it and that Jack Hofsiss, the director of ''The Elephant Man,'' decided to stage it with an overblown portentousness suggesting a summer-stock ''Oedipus at Colonus'' in modern dress. But if ''Total Abandon'' is unintentionally funny at times, you don't leave the theater smiling: the joke turns too sick for that.
What's benignly funny at first is to watch a writer - his name is Larry Atlas - mix elements from several Broadway and Hollywood hits of recent years with total abandon. His protagonist is Lenny Keller (Mr. Dreyfuss), whose wife abandoned him 21 months before the play begins, leaving him to bring up his young son alone - a la ''Kramer vs. Kramer.'' The son, Tommy, now lies ''legally dead'' in a hospital, and Lenny is fighting to prevent the court from turning off the two-year-old boy's life-support systems. Thus can Mr. Dreyfuss once more participate in the medical-ethics debate he sparked in the film version of ''Whose Life Is It, Anyway?''
But Lenny has another court fight ahead as well: He stands accused of assault for having put his son in the hospital in the first place by smashing him against a wall. It would seem an open-and-shut case of child abuse except that the playwright suggests there may be a rationalization for Lenny's sadistic behavior. As this logic goes, the father's real crime may be that he felt some primal, if warped, passion that drove him to love his son too much - literally to death. That's where the play's psychiatrist comes in, dragging ''Equus'' along with him.
It is somewhat amusing to watch Mr. Atlas try to force his mismatched pieces into a coherent picture, as a toddler might try to assemble a puzzle. When the three supporting characters - the psychiatrist (John Heard), Tommy's doctor (George N. Martin) and Lenny's lawyer (Clifton James) - practically fall over one another to debate what one of them calls ''areas of great importance to our society,'' you wonder if a pseudonymous Christopher Durang hasn't written ''Total Abandon'' as a parody. The professional men speak in textbook medical and legal jargon well below the level of repartee on television's ''Quincy.''
The plot is also ridiculous. In Act I, everyone is trying to find out if Lenny is suddenly fighting for his boy's comatose life not because he loves Tommy, as he maintains, but because he's trying to keep his assault indictment from being upgraded to murder. We don't care too much either way, in that this academic debate's outcome is preordained, and the playwright doesn't either: the much-anticipated hearing that resolves the issue mostly takes place offstage during intermission.
It's then we see, as we suspected, that the story is only padding, designed to stall off the piece de resistance: the Act II catharsis in which we get to watch Lenny re-enact his act of infanticide, ''Agnes of God''-style. This is followed by a final plea for sympathy in which Mr. Dreyfuss weeps into his now officially dead son's pajamas, crying out ''That's my boy!''
Maybe a genius could make us understand and forgive a child-abuser as we might the horse-blinder of ''Equus'' or the helplessly violent Lennie of ''Of Mice and Men.'' But Mr. Atlas's Lenny isn't even a character - merely a stick figure with a name, an occupation and a pre-fab, ostensibly pitiable hard-luck story. His aberrational behavior is explained by a single, primitive Freudian clue - a sexually pathological father - that makes Alfred Hitchcock's explanation of Norman Bates's motel-room shenanigans in ''Psycho'' look profound.
Nor is ''Total Abandon,'' in the end, a play so much as an amorphous smokescreen of filler and endlessly repeated exposition into which Mr. Atlas randomly drops his bombshells. In addition to the mimed recreation of the child-battering, those bombshells include grueling, synthetically attenuated descriptions of Tommy's mangled organs, of the gruesome tubes that keep him briefly ''alive'' and then of his actual death.
What Mr. Atlas has done is use child abuse cynically, as a surefire theatrical attention-getter. That it is. But when this crime's horrifying clinical ramifications are milked solely to provide artificial sustenance to a play that is otherwise confused pulp, the atrocity loses all meaning and the play that exploits it becomes pornographic. When we are further asked to condone child abuse, emotionally if not legally, on sentimental grounds, we must wonder if this production's perpetrators live in the real world - one that, for instance, contains children.
Mr. Dreyfuss works with fervor and intelligence in the doomed attempt to make Lenny lovable and credible. The other first-rate actors are equally hamstrung in trying to convince us that their characters are anything other than mannikins manufactured to demonstrate how ''human'' the protagonist is by contrast. David Jenkins has designed a stylized set, dominated by chain-link fencing and a semicircle of swivel chairs, that inflates a Midwestern courthouse into a chic interior decorator's notion of a neo-Nazi interrogation chamber. The frantically busy lighting, by Beverly Emmons, always dims in spasmodic increments at those moments when we're supposed to cry for the man who bashed in the brains of his twoyear-old son.