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‘Precious Sons,’ A New Play By George Furth, Opens on Broadway

March 21, 1986

NEW YORK (AP) _ The scene is a blue collar bungalow on Chicago’s South Side in 1949. Don McNeill’s ″Breakfast Club″ blares from the radio. Mom, pert and sassy, is busy making breakfast and trying to get her dawdling husband off to work and her two All-American sons off to school.

If you think that sounds like a homey, old-fashioned tableau worthy of Norman Rockwell and the Saturday Evening Post, you’re not far from wrong. Unfortunately, ″Precious Sons,″ which opened Thursday at Broadway’s Longacre Theater, has about as much depth as a magazine cover.

George Furth, who wrote the books for the Stephen Sondheim musicals ″Company″ and ″Merrily We Roll Along,″ has manufactured a play in which the crises come along at regular intervals, just like the cans on the assembly line where the playwright’s hero works.

Fred is a gruff, tough, inarticulate man who wants something better for his kids than a factory job. He’s decreed that his oldest son, Art, a graduating high school senior, attend the University of Illinois. His younger son, Freddy, an eighth grader, has been accepted at the prestigious University of Chicago Lab School.

There are problems. Freddy is an aspiring actor and has been offered a plum role in the national touring company of a Broadway play. Art has been making eyes at Sandra, the daughter of a wealthy neighbor, and is considering chucking college for a factory job like his father’s. Most importantly, Fred has been offered an impressive promotion to district manager. The catch is that he would have to uproot the family to either Cincinnati or Houston, something his wife Bea doesn’t want.

All of these roadblocks are resolved, two of them off-stage, before the final curtain. Furth is forced to pad the play with several fights, including a humdinger that ends Act 1. In that battle, Bea slams a huge breakfront to the floor. The sound is terrific and makes you forget what the couple was fighting about in the first place.

That’s one of the problems of the play. There’s an inconsistency to the characters that Furth and director Norman Rene have been unable to resolve. One minute, father is pummeling son; the next he’s gooily recalling how he’s saved every one of the child’s report cards going back to the first grade.The wife also has great fluctuations of character that aren’t justified.

What salvages much of the evening is the acting, particularly the work of Ed Harris and Judith Ivey. Harris handles Fred’s roller coaster personality very well, but he’s exceptionally fine in the play’s quieter moments. At the beginning of the second act, Fred shares a drink with his younger son and tries to explain how he feels about him. It’s the best moment in the play and one that doesn’t depend on easy laughs or histrionics. Miss Ivey, on the other hand, has one of those bold, brassy roles that are sure-fire laugh getters, and she makes sure she gets all of them.

William O’Leary and Anthony Rapp, who play their sons, are not far behind. O’Leary nicely apes Harris’ mannerisms, signaling that Art will grow up to be just as big a lug as his father. Rapp captures perfectly the pained affection that most children feel toward their parents. Only Anne Marie Bobby’s portrayal of Sandra as a teen-age Olive Oyl seems out of place.

Andrew Jackness has designed a living room that features an abundance of flowered wallpaper and slip covers on every stick of furniture. Richard Nelson has lighted the set with a warm, dusky glow and Joseph G. Aulisi has provided the authentic-looking period costumes. But that authenticity and the vibrant acting isn’t enough to bring this artificial family drama to life.

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This is what other critics had to say about ″Precious Sons″:

Furth’s ″ambition is noble, but, a superb performance by Mr. Harris not withstanding, the result is, at best, a mildly diverting, emotionally remote pastiche,″ wrote Frank Rich of The New York Times.

Clive Barnes of the New York Post credited Miss Ivey and Harris with ″immaculately balanced and compelling performances,″ but the play offers ″the secondhand honesty of conventional things seen in conventional fashion.″

Douglas Watt of the Daily News also liked the performances, but said there’s ″so much contrivance that you’re never quite sure where you or the writer stand.″ Newsday’s Allan Wallach said ″much of the play’s interest drains away in repetitious squabbling.″

USA Today’s Linda Winer said the production ″is so fine that one almost forgets, from moment to moment, that the play is too long, too talky, and too ludicrously overloaded with major life crises.″

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