Watching the sleek and engaging comedienne Janis Paige parade about the Music Box stage in a series of quilted pants outfits, and at one point in a flimsy thing revealing her splendid legs, was about the only cause for enjoyment in last night's disastrous comedy, "Alone Together," the work of Lawrence Roman, who more than 20 years ago subjected us to "Under the Yum Yum Tree."
Except for its occasional use of four-letter words, and of cordless phones to absorb some of the mindless talk, "Alone Together" belongs to the 1940s, and even then it might have found it difficult to survive. By now, even television has exhausted the possibilities of such junk entertainment.
As the curtain rises on Karl Eigsti's well-appointed, but undistinguished, West Los Angeles living-room-and-kitchen set, a middle-aged couple, George and Helene Butler (Kevin McCarthy and Paige) are breathing sighs of relief as the last of their three grown sons leaves the nest. And in no time at all, they've slipped into something comfortable and are preparing to have at one another on a shag rug before the fireplace.
But before they can say ouch, the door opens and the oldest son, fed up with his math post back East at M.I.T., barges in, to be followed soon after by the second son whose wife has kicked him out of their Dallas home for philandering. Having worn the joke thin in the opening scene, playwright Roman plunges doggedly on through several more, bringing in a stray nymphet and eventually the son who left at the start, but now shows up with a toothache.
It goes without saying that all these younger folk disappear in the final scene, leaving the oldsters to try their luck once more before the fireplace or elsewhere in the house.
The performers are unable to rise above their name material, though I doubt that a couple of them are equipped for much more edifying stuff. Early in this interminable evening, the oldest son, the math whiz, remarks that his professor "never goes to plays or concerts; he'd rather imagine them." He has a point.
There is nothing so much wrong with Lawrence Roman's new play Alone Together that TV couldn't probably accommodate.
It opened at the Music Box Theater last night with a decent cast likably led by Janis Paige and Kevin McCarthy, and on television many people might have found it modestly engaging. Of course, there it would have had the remission of commercial interruptions, and no one would have paid the admission of $32.50 for a ticket.
Mr. Roman is an experienced writer, and in 1960 his comedy Under the Yum-Yum Tree had a perfectly respectable run. But in the quarter-century between, Broadway and Broadway economics have changed remarkably.
Years ago Alone Together might have been a Broadway possibility. Today it is something of a Broadway doubt.
Helene and George Butler are a Californian couple seemingly about to be sprung from the incarceration of parenthood. There three sons are finally grown up, and the youngest of them that morning is leaving for college a blissfully safe 500 miles away.
That parenting is a burden as well as a joy is a proper perception, and many middle-aged couples feel an access of new freedom when their fedglings finally fly the family coop. People do have instincts other than nesting, and freely entertain the dizzy thought of life after parenthood.
To this common perception Roman has added what is apparently a contemporary statistic and certainly an observable fact. More and more children are, for various reasons, remaining at home for longer and longer - even past young adulthood.
Thus it ironically is that, on the very day the youngest son departs, his two brothers return unannounced to George and Helene, reclaiming, as by right, their former territory. To add injury to insult, the college-bound youngster has picked up a homeless young girl on the way and, casually, sent her back to occupy his old room.
Chaos! And a time for the affirmation of the human rights of aging parents.
The idea is dramatically valid, but also dramatically thin. It is a self-evident situation that is unconflicting, as it is only going to be solved in a predictable way. (I mean this nice Californian couple is neither going to knuckle down under oppression nor slaughter its offspring. Is it? Are they?)
There are a few friendly jokes. The middle-aged husband and wife are both human and doll-like, one of the unneeded prodigals is humorously a failed genius, and the other is a regrettably successful brat, while the waiflike cuckoo - a young lady who wanders around the home wittily dressed in the soul of brevity - has taken up celibacy with the avidity, if not the vocation, of a nun.
But all this is the icing on a cake that in itself is not unduly palatable, and somewhat gooey for a complete theatrical meal.
The cake has been directed by Arnold Mittelman, who is also the co-producer and first staged the recipe at his own Whole Theater Company in New Jersey. His culinary dedication is less to be questioned than his cheflike judgment.
The Karl Eigsti setting, intended to suggest an opulent Los Angeles home, is ugly and unlikely (the wine rack, for example, is placed out of reach in the eaves), but Jane Greenwood's costumes prove a constant delight - one of the few constant delights of the unconstant evening.
Also the performances are not without their charms. It is a measure of Miss Paige's ladylike manner that she gets her biggest applause for four-letter words (a sure sign of perceived gentility), and Mr. McCarthy's bluff, blundering patriarch is equally agreeable.
Of the younger people, Don Howard expounds sophistries engagingly as the nutty mathematician, and as the girl seeking revenge, Alexandra Gersten, with breathlessly husky voice and a fetching midriff, is as cute as a zipper.
Couples of a certain age, cheerfully contemplating the state of being "alone together," may well identify with the play. For me an old cartoon in The New Yorker, more avowedly in a pastry mood, said it all. A beaming couple is presenting a well-candled birthday cake to a young man. Emblazoned in the icing is a simple message: "Leave home!" And the cartoon takes the cake for being briefer.
With ''Alone Together,'' his new play at the Music Box, the writer Lawrence Roman returns to Broadway for the first time since his 1960 hit, ''Under the Yum-Yum Tree.'' Although Broadway has changed a great deal during the quarter century since then, Mr. Roman has not. ''Alone Together'' recalls those long-running, latter-day domestic farces, such as ''Never Too Late'' and ''The Impossible Years,'' that became obsolete once audiences discovered that television situation comedies offered the same goods for free.
Mr. Roman's sitcom is so antediluvian that he might have titled it ''My Three Sons Revisited'' instead of sullying the good name of a perfectly lovely Arthur Schwartz-Howard Dietz song. He tells us of three young- adult sons who suddenly return to their parents' Los Angeles home after experiencing some hard knocks in the tough real world outside. The parents, who had been looking forward to solitary togetherness after 30 years of child rearing, spend two acts trying to push their progeny out of the nest for good. They succeed only after Dad (Kevin McCarthy), heretofore a dunderhead, delivers a lecture that proves that father really does know best.
Both Dad and Mom (Janis Paige) blame their children's regressional behavior on Dr. Spock and the permissive excesses of that ''dumb time,'' the 1960's. Aside from this message, only a judicious sprinkling of four-letter words (almost exclusively given to the female characters) and the two-hour-plus running time distinguish ''Alone Together'' from a black-and-white rerun. Even so, Mr. Roman has problems stretching the play to a full evening: he relies so heavily on phoned-in developments that the installation of all the required phone equipment becomes a major plot twist in its own right in Act I.
At times the playwright seems to assume that Broadway theatergoers are even less sophisticated than a Nielsen household. He painstakingly explains that M.I.T. stands for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and provides not one but two lines further identifying the school as ''the most prestigious university in the country.'' We're also asked to believe that the son (Don Howard) who's fled from M.I.T., a mathematician, would set the house on fire with a scientific experiment - and that another son would have developed an accent as thick as J. R. Ewing's after only a few years of living in Texas. For spice, Mr. Roman throws in a scantily clad bombshell of a coed who, in the time-honored sitcom fashion, proves to have the morals of a nun.
For all its vulgarity, ''Alone Together'' is too sincere to be offensive: the author genuinely aspires to say something about parents and children, however witlessly. The stars, who haven't been away from Broadway quite as long as Mr. Roman has, deserve better. It's embarrassing to watch Mr. McCarthy, an often elegant actor, and the chipper, handsome Miss Paige grope about on a fur rug to attempt some ''high-decibel intercourse'' just before their first prodigal son storms back home. Worse, these two veterans must act with a supporting cast that, with the exception of Mr. Howard, seems to have been recruited from a dinner theater production of ''L'il Abner.''
The director, Arnold Mittelman, has allowed two distinguished designers, Jane Greenwood (costumes) and Arden Fingerhut (lighting), to get away with exceptionally slovenly work. Karl Eigsti, whose scenic representation of an appliance-laden West Los Angeles dream house provides two levels of slamming doors, emulates the set employed by the third-rate sex farce in ''Noises Off'' - only in ''Alone Together,'' the tacky design is not intended as a parody. When Miss Paige's Mom accuses her sons of ''laying out all their suffering like so much Tupperware,'' Mr. Roman is, for once, telling us the unexaggerated truth.