The high cost of producing theater has made two-character plays the norm on Broadway in recent years. If A.R. Gurney's "Sweet Sue" is a reliable economic indicator, we may be moving into an inflationary spiral - this is a two-character play that requires four actors.
Mary Tyler Moore and Lynn Redgrave play different sides of the same woman, a divorced suburbanite who specializes in greeting-card design. She wants to move beyond the cheery simplicity of the "Sweet Sue" character that is her trademark.
Presumably this happens during a summer vacation, when she falls in love with her son's college roommate, played by Barry Tubb and John K. Linton, and gets him to pose nude for her.
Gurney never makes clear why it is necessary to have two actors in each part. True, it is a way of dramatizing a character in conflict with him or herself - we see the woman arguing as much with herself (themselves?) as with her lover.
But the arguments, like the characters, don't run very deep. So the device never seems more than a gimmick.
Moreover, having two actors for each character doubles the amount of talking. This is a play without any quiet moments. Gurney doesn't convince us of the growing romance, nor does he evoke the simple charms of American life the way he usually does.
"Sweet Sue" is like a piano piece with no rests, no lingering melodies and everything played staccato.
The actors don't make the play any more fetching. It is odd that Mary Tyler Moore should have been so endearing so many years on TV. Onstage she projects mainly coldness. Her face, even when it's smiling, seems hard, as if there were a barely controlled anger just below the surface. Her flat voice seems an instrument for sarcasm and snideness, not for romance.
She has some winsome moments and, of course, she knows how to get laughs, but nothing she does makes the character sympathetic. Nor does Redgrave, who has a larger bag of theatrical tricks to draw from but whose work, though more energetic and resourceful, seems forced.
The young men have it easier because little is required of them beyond a callow earnestness. Tubb has a bubblier charm, Linton the lure of still waters.
Santo Loquasto's simple set captures an airy, serene quality of summer in suburbia, providing a lyrical feeling the brittle, shallow play lacks.
The new play by A.R. Gurney, Jr., "Sweet Sue," which opened at the Music Box Theater last night, is undeniably sweet. It is also undeniably slight.
The heroine is Susan. She is middle-aged, but defiantly undefeated. Deserted by her husband, she has raised her family by herself, making her living as a freelance artist for Hallmark greeting cards.
Here - if you have not read the advance publicity - comes the surprise. Susan is played by Mary Tyler Moore. And Lynn Redgrave. Together. Both. On the same stage at the same time.
The hero is Jake. He is 23 years old, the roommate of her son at Dartmouth. He is also made into a double-header, played by John K. Linton and Barry Tubb. Anyone for schizophrenia?
The time is summer. Jake is staying at Susan's home, while he makes a few bucks painting houses in the neighborhood. She also is painting, rather more seriously, for she is hoping to escape from her greeting card formulas and to produce one genuine picture.
However, Susan - a paragon of apparent common sense who sees her home as "an oasis of decency in a world gone absolutely haywire on the subject of sex" - now finds Jake the surprising object of her matronly desire.
Nothing much happens between curtain rise and curtain fall, but that nothing much is cheerfully provided with a certain style and wit.
And, as a basic story line, Jake learns a few lessons in praise of older women - and takes a rather long time in learning them.
Movie buffs might scent in this scenario a mingling of an updated "Summer of '42" with a down-numbered "Three Faces of Eve" - the generation gap meets the split personality.
But, unfortunately, the meeting never takes place. Having stated his theme and unleashed his dramatic devices of a twin heroine and twin hero both jabbering in friendly counterpoint, Gurney sits back and does remarkably little, apart from writing in his customary civilized and urbane fashion.
If you had been expecting a frantic debate between the id and the ego, desire and conscience (possibly one of those graphic cartoon angel-and-devil battles), you would be disappointed.
Occasionally, Gurney does use his duality of protagonist to have his heroine edit herself a little, or even more daringly, to fantasize on what she might have said rather than what she already had said.
After all, as Susan tries to promise us, she is "of two minds when it comes to most things." Unluckily for both us and Gurney, she really isn't - the two selves have what even Susan describes as a "good working partnership with themselves."
Thus, there is no real conflict, no dramatic need for two selves at all and nothing for us in the audience but to sit back and watch while Susan finally has her way with the young man, with modestly predictable results.
So the play is slight, so slight that it would make a souffle seem like a bagel by comparison. However it is still sweet, and I suspect that a lot of people could find its ingenuous charms sufficient.
Particularly when these charms are exploited so professionally, with expert timing, by Moore and Redgrave.
Santo Loquasto's diagramatic setting suggests a pleasantly airy and versatile house and garden, and John Tillinger's direction briskly paced with all the right intercuts and pauses (including neat double-takes from the double cast) proves an acceptably conventional blessing.
The two extremely personable young men are agreeable young actors, and spend most of the play in various states of confusion and undress.
Their charms apart, the success of the evening depends on Susan, or rather on Moore and Redgrave.
Moore's special blend of worldliness and innocence works wonders, and meshes nicely with Redgrave's more overtly technical and more brilliantly comic interpretation.
Both of them are a pleasure to watch, individually, together or playing adroitly with one or the other of their two young men. Yet, one wonders what both of them are really doing there.
How happy we could be with either, even if one dear charmer actually was away. But without these double identities, "Sweet Sue," slender as she is, would be but a shadow of her present self.
As an articulate theatrical chronicler of WASP manners and mating habits, A. R. Gurney Jr. specializes in richly populated and furnished interior landscapes. The playwright is at his most artful when he invents an apparatus as premise - the dining room as an unchangeable environment for multi-generational maneuverings; a ''party critic'' who reviews a social gathering as emblematic of a way of life. However, in Mr. Gurney's new play, ''Sweet Sue,'' which opened last night at the Music Box Theater, the idea is simply an exercise in artifice.
The play co-stars two estimable actresses, Mary Tyler Moore and Lynn Redgrave, and features two lesser-known, capable actors, John K. Linton and Barry Tubb. The two actresses play a single character, as do the actors. They do not play two faces of the same character - though the actresses' faces, hair styles and voices are indeed dissimilar. ''Sweet Sue'' is not a comedy like Peter Nichols's superior ''Passion,'' in which actors played alter egos, an outward and inward self, with one urging the other to lose his inhibitions.
In the Gurney play, Ms. Moore and Ms. Redgrave simply inhabit the stage at the same time; they talk to one another, sharing scenes and even sentences. What Ms. Moore starts, Ms. Redgrave finishes, and vice versa, a pattern of dialogue that is confusing until we realize that the lines are interchangeable and that, in this instance, one plus one equals one.
The storyline concerns a middle-aged divorcee who becomes infatuated with her son's college roommate, a guest in her house for a long summer. The question raised is, will she or won't he? Stripped of its clone-like pretensions, ''Sweet Sue'' courts comparison with a problem play of another era, Robert Anderson's ''Tea and Sympathy.'' In that drama, a schoolmaster's ladylike wife sleeps with a young student. ''Sweet Sue'' is something of a reversal; it is the older woman who is in search of a romantic experience. At the end of this twinned rite of passage, one almost expects the young man to whisper, Anderson-style, ''Years from now . . . when you talk about this . . . and you will . . . be kind.''
With ''Sweet Sue,'' it is the playwright who is less than kind to his characters. Susan and her shadow, Susan Too, are duplicate halves of a single dull woman; this is a very limited partnership. As a designer of greeting cards, she is supposedly the creator of the smiling face that wishes one, ''Have a Good Day'' - and that is about the depth of her character. Once a would-be artist, she is now reduced to spending solitary suburban summers, dreaming and re-reading her favorite novel, ''Anna Karenina.''
There is no Count Vronsky in her future until the son's roommate shows up, unannounced, on her doorstep. If anything, Jake and his shadow, Jake Too, are even less interesting than the ladies of the house. Except for his handsome appearance and his ''have a good day'' smile, there is not much to be said for him.
Of course, Susan - still the Sweet Sue of her youth - tumbles. But the play is not really serious about investigating the reasons for and the results of the liberation of the heroine, or the psychological implications of the September-May romance. Instead, Mr. Gurney is content with having Susan reiterate the fact that Freud must have had something to say on the subject.
At the same time, there is a surprising lack of sophistication on the part of the leading character. Even as she eyes the boarder - more than anything, it seems, she wants to sketch him in the nude - she maintains her rigid double standard. She does not want her unseen son sleeping with his unseen girlfriend (under her unseen roof - a cutaway set design by Santo Loquasto), and, when Jake has a date, she stays awake until he comes home. Susan's house is a bastion of hypocrisy. In a real two-character play - instead of this mock ''four-hander'' - there would be something at stake, a dramatic conflict that would move the characters from one crisis to another. Here there is circumlocution.
Because of the playwright's expertise, there are a few funny lines and several moments that hint at the situation's comic possibilities. In one such scene, Miss Moore tells Mr. Linton that she is planning to design seven holiday greeting cards that will depict the Seven Deadly Sins. Naturally they disagree as to which sin fits which holiday.
Under the direction of John Tillinger, the four players work diligently at being a tag team, with Miss Moore the most comfortable of the quartet. Her comic timing, perfected during her years on television, suits Susan well, with Miss Redgrave more easily filling in as background and sounding board. The two can be an amusing pair, as when the roommate informs them that he is older than they think - 23 - and the actresses do a twin double take. Of the two actors, Mr. Linton is a bit more adept at playing the role of straight man.
Two or four actors would make scant difference. Nor would the introduction on stage of all the people who are frequently mentioned - the heroine's son and his girlfriend, Jake's new girl who makes mix-ins at the local ice cream shop, or Susan's longtime suitor, Harvey Satterfield. On second thought, Harvey might make a small difference. As a professor of moral philosophy, he might have a provocative perspective on the dilemma of Sweet Sue: the protagonist of a play in which a talented playwright gets less mileage by doubling his cast of characters.