"A Month of Sundays" is the sort of play to which critics should not be invited. It is an amiable little comedy for which people seem perfectly willing to plunk down $37.50 in order to see a beloved star like Jason Robards. At a time when people are grateful for small favors, the audience accepts its modest humor - marginally funnier than the average TV sitcom - cheerfully.
The critic, alas, is dutybound to point out that "Sundays" runs two and a half hours, in the course of which we learn virtually nothing about the six characters.
Larbey's humor has its bright moments, as when Robards, playing a widower in a plush old age home, is rebuked by the nurse for not "doing well" with his breakfast. He responds, "Does that refer to the amount eaten or the aesthetic arrangement on the plate?"
For the most part, however, the humor consists of tiresome running gags about such topics as incontinence and traffic in New Jersey.
About all you can really say in its favor is that it perfectly captures the tedium of life in an institution where everything is comfortable, routine and hopelessly dull.
As the sharp-tongued widower, Robards doesn't seem to exert himself, but if he did, would he get any more laughs? Probably not. The character is mellow, playful, slightly world-weary and those are things Robards, with his mournful beagle smile, husky voice and arch delivery, can carry off with ease and aplomb.
Ludwig Salem handles the role of another "inmate" capably, as does Lynne Thigpen as a cleaning lady. Patricia Elliott and Richard Portnow do well in a telling scene. As Robards' daughter and son-in-law, who make grudging monthly visits, they find him asleep and hope he won't wake up so they can leave without having to make "pleasant" conversation with him. There is the germ of something here.
"Sundays" does offer a splendid set by Marjorie Bradley Kellogg, beautifully lit by Tharon Musser. The play itself, though, is so negligible that it's hard to understand why anyone wanted to make the effort to do it.
Old age is a pain in the ass - and more or less everywhere else. That is the news in brief from Bob Larbey's play "A Month of Sundays," starring Jason Robards, which opened at the Ritz Theater last night.
I suppose the real tragedy of old age is that it is too ironically funny even to be tragic. As Robards bitterly asks in this graveyard view from a Westchester retirement home: "Where's the dignity for us?" Where indeed? The human body is a pretty cheap trick.
Robards plays Cooper, an old man who has decided to enter a home rather than be a burden to his largely unsympathetic daughter and her wimpish husband.
Now he is flirting valiantly with the female staff, while keeping a check on his "record of physical deteriorations, something hardening up here, something softening down there."
Cooper has struck up abrasively affectionate friendships with his young and pretty nurse (Felicity LaFortune) and the resilient housekeeper (Lynn Thigpen) whose father is also facing the ravaging agony of old age, uncushioned by the relative comfort of Cooper's middle-class economic status.
Cooper's other friend, also a study in geriatric decline, is Aylott (Salem Ludwig), a man of about his own age who is encountering the first intimations of senile amnesia and the fear, even the awareness, of becoming a mental "zombie."
Senescence for Cooper is, so far, physical rather than mental, incontinence of the bladder rather than any failure of the mind or memory, although even Cooper is given to haranguing irascibly his empty room on the perils of old age.
The play was originally produced in London a season or so back, but it has been untraceably translated into its new American environment.
Presumably the baseball team - the 1937 N.Y. Giants - Cooper and Aylott endlessly try to recall was once a cricket team (Middlesex in 1948?), and their ongoing argument was open to solution by a cricket bible rather than the Encyclopedia of Baseball, while the suburbs through which relatives trek would have had different names.
But old age is old age wherever it is celebrated and suffered, and all over the world it can be said: "We don't all have perfect relationships with our parents."
For all this, for all of Gene Saks's deft staging (there is by now a specially unobtrusive style of directing that deserves to be called "Saks appeal") and the mostly enjoyable acting, Larbey's play - though doubtless based on reality - never quite convinces.
Cooper's mordant wit and determination of character seems rootless. Larbey's hero appears to have no interests, apart from the glazed yet glinting eye of a "dirty old man" (why "are there never any dirty young men, or dirty middle-aged men?" he plaintively queries) and a mild concern for Scotch whiskey and chess.
As a result, the play is far gloomier than it should be but, and this is the ironic corner into which the playwright has painted himself, were it any brighter the play would lose its geriatric point that dying is an unalloyed bitch.
Still there are performances to savor, all as modestly conventional as the play itself - particularly Thigpen as the no-nonsense black housekeeper. Ludwig as the potential zombie and best of all, of course, Robards himself - joyously rambunctious and fiendishly naughty while whittling away his last days before the portals of death.
Although David Letterman has long been considered the prime candidate to inherit Johnny Carson's late-night television throne, one must now wonder if Jason Robards, of all people, is throwing his hat into the ring. In ''A Month of Sundays,'' his new vehicle on Broadway, the silver-haired Mr. Robards sports an increasing resemblance to Mr. Carson, brandishes wisecracks with the wry and unerring flair of a vaudevillian and, in general, holds forth from a center-stage armchair as if the Ritz Theater were the ''Tonight'' show's make-believe living room and Ed McMahon were the arbiter of public taste. Why would one of our most brilliant actors turn sit-down clown? Mr. Robards is no fool. Confronted with a nonrole in a nonscript, the star must live by his wits, if only to prevent himself from going batty and the audience from going home.
The performance does earn as many laughs as the circumstances will allow - in part because of its sheer, undisguised campiness. Cast as Cooper, a crochety yet all too persistently lovable senior citizen living in dread of senility and incontinence in a Westchester retirement home, Mr. Robards makes only a perfunctory stab at simulating old age. Actually, Cooper seems at least as young as the 64-year-old Mr. Robards is in real life - which makes him more than a shade too youthful to devote so much of his time (and ours) to fantasizing about urine bags. Then again, without its excretory jokes, ''A Month of Sundays'' would have almost nothing to propel it: the first sound to be heard when the curtain rises is that of a toilet flushing, and, from then on, the references to ''trickling,'' intestinal ''water works'' and ''the rubber tailor'' rarely subside.
Give the star credit for his consummate put-on artistry; he does not even pretend to take the play seriously. Alas, the same cannot be said of the author, an English television writer named Bob Larbey. This is one of those sanctimonious works that presume to preach about the ''dignity'' of old people even as they sanitize and trivialize the very real issues the elderly face. In the fairy-tale world of ''A Month of Sundays,'' no one has money worries: the typically affordable middle-class retirement home on display boasts the devoted staff and palatial dimensions of San Simeon. (As gloomily designed by Marjorie Bradley Kellogg, Cooper's dark, wood-paneled bedroom could also pass for a classy funeral parlor.) We learn as well that parents and middle-aged children can settle lifelong disputes in a single reconciliatory conversation, and that even a victim of senility (played by Salem Ludwig) can be temporarily turned around by a pep talk - just in time for an upbeat final curtain.
Maybe Mr. Larbey, who occasionally scores a joke or minor point, was led astray during his journey from London. ''A Month of Sundays'' was set in England when first seen (not by me) in the West End. The Americanization of the text for New York - reminiscent of the disastrous treatment given ''Duet for One'' on Broadway a few seasons back - almost inevitably transports the play to a nowhere land unrecognizable to audiences on either side of the Atlantic. Nearly every detail in ''A Month of Sundays'' is fuzzy, including such fundamental matters as Cooper's preretirement profession and age.
The real point of the Americanization, in any case, seems to be to make the script resemble Herb Gardner's commercially successful ''I'm Not Rappaport'' as much as possible - with perhaps a little ''Sunshine Boys'' and ''Social Security'' thrown in for good measure. Hence Cooper, like all elderly characters in Broadway boulevard comedies, constantly boasts of his sex drive. He is also given a black foil - a sassy cleaning woman instead of the building superintendant of ''Rappaport'' - and an unsympathetic nouveau riche daughter from the suburbs (Short Hills here, Great Neck in ''Rappaport''). Whatever one thinks of Mr. Gardner's play, it tells a story, develops its characters and is written in a distinctive voice. In ''A Month of Sundays,'' the people and events are so bland that the whole enterprise has the personality of a generic product.
Gene Saks, the director, has recruited an absurdly overqualified supporting company, led by Patricia Elliott as the daughter and Lynne Thigpen as the maid, to serve as Mr. Robards's stooges. The appealing Felicity LaFortune plays the concerned nurse who flirts with the randy Cooper whenever she isn't arguing for the rights of patients who have ''gone off the trolley.'' Richard Portnow is the preposterously uptight son-in-law who relates to the star much as Harry Von Zell once did to George Burns. Mr. Saks's pacing is fast and punchy - surely the only way to go -and he almost convinces us that the evening is speedier than ''The Iceman Cometh.'' The time passes fastest when Mr. Robards is being funny, never mind that the play itself often seems the butt of the joke.