Hooray! There's a brand-new hit on Broadway. It's a comedy by David Wiltse called "Doubles," and it opened last night at the Ritz wearing a smile as wide as the proscenium arch.
It takes place in the locker room of a Norwalk, Conn., racquet club where four men of early middle age meet one night a week for tennis. It's a safety valve for Lennie (Ron Leibman), who manages a Newark supermarket in his father-in-law's chain; for George (Tony Roberts), a stockbroker the S.E.C. may nab for manipulating funds; and for Arnie (Austin Pendleton), a lawyer whose wife is ready to ditch him for his infidelities. But the fourth player's firm has shifted him to a new location, so Guy (John Cullum), a stranger who writes for a tennis magazine and turns out to be a whiz on the court, is enlisted.
Wiltse is a nifty writer, dizzy with words and situation, and the first act is all-out hilarious with Leibman, at his vibrant best, contributing the comedy performance of the season as the boisterous Lennie. And if the snappy first-act ending isn't the surprise intended, and if we get into such serious business as a heart attack and marital troubles in the second, no matter; we're wholeheartedly with this entertaining bunch from start to bubbly finish.
The acts break down into scenes in which one or another is observed confiding in the nubile attendant Heather (Kate Collins), who...but why give that away.
Pendleton's Arnie, though big on hygiene and given to silly euphemisms for genitalia, is extraordinarily far from the wimp he seems. And Roberts' suave comedy style is splendidly attuned to the part of the errant George. Cullum habitually and stuffily draws parallels between behavioral characteristics of primitive societies and his companions' problems, leading to explosive confrontations between Lennie and Guy.
Moron Da Costa, returning to Broadway after a considerable absence, has staged the play to perfection, and with split-second timing. Robert Fletcher's locker room is functional, and his costumes are nicely chosen. Craig Miller's lighting is another asset.
You probably could poke a hole or two in "Doubles" here and there, but I dare you to point out the slightest blemish in this rowdy, appealing and captivating comedy.
In the critical lexicon of hooray adjectives, "likable" is conceivably the one least liked by theater producers. Yet it is a good word, a fair word, a descriptive word, and it happens to fit perfectly the new comedy Doubles, which opened last night at the Ritz Theater.
It is a dandy, unpretentious little night out with the aging boys from Connecticut who once a week don designer shorts to play macho-tennis in arc-lit bubbles.
The playwright David Wiltse seems to have secreted himself in a locker room and observed the antics of his four leading characters in reality, about the all-American tribal sport of male bonding.
The four chief characters are all muppies - middle-aged urban professionals.
Three are Jews - a wife-nagged businessman (Ron Leibman) who runs a supermarket for his father-in-law; a broker (Tony Roberts) not averse to working on over a period of a few months. Observed and recorded.
The results are frequently hilarious, and tell us a lot about men interreacting with men. Personally I have never had the slightest desire to be bonded to another man, much preferring women, but Wiltse's play, although superficially about tennis and its players, is, the shady side of the street; and of course, a lawyer (Austin Pendleton), whose mild and straggly appearance disguises an authentic closet Romeo.
The fourth is a WASP - an overbearingly pompous tennis magazine writer (John Cullum), who believes as much in the symbolism of tennis as in the game itself.
A well-matched set of psychologically mixed doubles, and Wiltse's play is too smart to give us anything too much like a story. Things simply happen. Outside the play's immediate context.
One of our court gladiators has a heart attack, another is compromised in the sauna with the young lady who hands out towels and sympathy, yet another is fired from his job.
But it is not what happens, it's the way these hushed muppies open up under the stress and humor of incident that makes the play endearing.
Wiltse is anything but profound in his observations - usually expect the unexpected. It is the wimp who is the great lover, the boorish loudmouth who comes up with the soft answer. But at its level, this is kinda satisfying.
One of the things that makes Wiltse's essay on man as a social beast so likable is his presentation of life as it should be, rather than life as it is. Which is, perhaps, what male comradeship is all about.
The play, as befits its somewhat precarious charms, is beautifully done. Morton Da Costa's staging proves expert and even-tempered.
He cannot iron out the play's often unruly structure - the characters are each given self-revelatory vignette-soliloquies that disturb the flow - but he does smooth over its ongoing debates.
The anonymously semi-chic locker-room setting by Robert Fletcher precisely hits the spot, as do Fletcher's carefully selected costumes.
This is how such people and such a place would indeed look. And their behavior is in the expert hands of Wiltse and Da Costa. And, of course, the actors.
Both Nicholas Wyman as a teak-like tennis pro, and Kate Collins as an alluring giggle in shorts, are more than acceptable, but the weight of the evening depends on its four brilliantly seeded stars.
Dominating much of the play is the driving service and back-handed sweep of Ron Leibman as the obnoxious, basically shy, blowhard who treats his friends as opponents.
But Leibman's virtuosity is matched by Cullum's brittle, loveless returns, the wry and battered rallies of Roberts, and perfectly timed net-work of Pendleton.
Doubles is essentially teamwork, and all four players are equally adept at both aggressive single forays, and selfless partnering.
Because of its simplicity, lack of pretension, and, to an extent, admittedly commercial glibness, it would be easy to underestimate Wiltse's modest yet pleasing play.
Yet I enjoyed it. Let's hear it for "likable"! And now, anyone for tennis?
When one of the middle-aged tennis buddies of ''Doubles'' reflects nostalgically on his severed marriage, he finds that what he misses most is watching television with his wife. ''Phyllis and I always liked to watch the sitcoms together,'' the man solemnly recalls, with an air of regret bordering on the Proustian.
Theatergoers who share that undying fondness for sitcoms may enjoy ''Doubles'' as well. The play at the Ritz, written by David Wiltse, is a reasonably proficient, if overlong, exercise in innocuousness, with a scattering of funny jokes, pleasant performances and sentimental sermons. Although not remotely in the league of early Neil Simon - its apparent theatrical prototype - ''Doubles'' is far superior to Broadway's last sitcom, ''Alone Together,'' and undoubtedly spicier than the reruns that monopolize prime time during the warmer months. Writing for Broadway, rather than the networks, Mr. Wiltse can use four-letter words - or seven-letter Yiddish translations of them - and even spring a wisecrack about Freud.
The premise concerns four suburban men, three Jewish pals and one gentile interloper, who meet regularly for unmixed doubles matches at a tennis club in suburban Connecticut. It's male menopause time for one and all. Arnie (Austin Pendleton), a lawyer, wants to sow the wild oats his early marriage foreclosed. Lennie (Ron Leibman), a harried retailer, is so angry at his nagging wife that he punches her in the nose (thereby making her ''the only woman in Westport with two nose jobs''). George (Tony Roberts), an easygoing stockbroker, must cope with a career crisis prompted by charges of insider trading. The gentile, Guy (John Cullum), must get in touch with his repressed feelings - a cross all gentiles must bear in comedies of this cartoonish type.
We never see the foursome play tennis, but we do watch them dress and undress continually in the locker room that serves as the setting. The undraped bodies are somewhat more authentic than the dialogue. Mr. Wiltse's lines often suggest characters a generation older than those in view - and the writing's glib professional sheen papers over the players' ostensible pain. It's the legitimate point of ''Doubles'' that middle-aged men, like their newly liberated wives, should have a private place to let their hair down and lend one another support. But Mr. Wiltse's characters confess their marital estrangements and latent identity conflicts only in awkwardly inserted, Phil Donahue-style monologues, which land with all the bounce of dead tennis balls.
The play's thematic discoveries are unfailingly predictable (''Nobody's young forever''), and so are the plot developments designed to provide the men with intimations of both mortality and salvation. The final tableau -a toast to eternal friendship, preceded by a round robin of unearned happy endings - lacks only a superimposed list of credits to match up perfectly with an episode of ''Cheers.''
Under the efficient directorial hand of Morton Da Costa, the actors get their laughs. Reasonable people can disagree on how many laughs there are: I clocked one well-made joke every five minutes or so, but those who are convulsed by the mere mention of the word ''penis'' (or any of its myriad synonyms) will find the mirth more consistent. Mr. Pendleton is the one actor who must expose his sexual organ as well as talk about it, and he also gives the funniest performance: The most nebbishy of the men - but also the luckiest with women - he can occasionally be mistaken for Woody Allen.
The amiable Mr. Roberts expertly lobs throwaway lines as if he were, indeed, back with Mr. Allen in ''Play It Again, Sam.'' In the most somber and emotive role, Mr. Cullum is, as required, a sincere piece of white bread, but Mr. Leibman could use some reining in as the most hostile and vulgar of the guys. While his character is meant to be overbearing, the actor's eye-bulging rantings can be over the top in the Don Rickles manner.
The young supporting players are Nicholas Wyman, who's quite amusing as a narcissistic stud of a tennis pro, and Kate Collins, as the voluptuous club attendant whom the players all ogle. The evening's biggest surprise may be the author's failure to provide the scene that would allow this unusually decorative pair to join the stars in stripping for the sauna.