William Alfred's "The Curse of an Aching Heart," which brought Faye Dunaway back to the local stage last night at the Little, is either an almost-musical or an almost-play, take your pick. In any case, this fairly short and episodic work, which I kept thinking of as "A Shrub Grows in Brooklyn," makes for an evening of thin charm.
The beauteous and appealing star gives a winning performance as Fran Duffy, later Walsh, who grows up in a lower middle-class Brooklyn neighborhood in the '20s. Cared for by a stern uncle and his wife, who isn't seen until late in the play when she's brought on to deliver a lament, Fran is briefly identified, for no good reason, as the granddaughter of Josie, the fated heroine of Alfred's 1965 Off Broadway drama, "Hogan's Goat," that first brought attention to Dunaway and sped her to Hollywood.
The new play opens and closes in 1942 with Fran, a working woman supporting a teenage son and a heavy-drinking and improvident husband, seen only as the handsome fellow her heart aches for in the mid-'20s, revisiting the old neighborhood and the uncle she has avoided all these years, and summoning up memories of the past. At the finish, she strolls off satisfied that while life may not be a bowl of cherries, it's worth the living, anyway.
Alfred's hopeful outlook is attractive, offset as it is by a couple of harsh scenes involving the uncle, John Joseph (Jo Jo) Finn, the first when he is overcome by lust at the sight of his dolled-up niece on the way to her first date, and the second when she finally makes up with the now widowed Jo Jo confined to a wheelchair and living in filth.
All this seems terribly contrived and its sentiment not nearly as affecting as Betty Smith's in "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn." And Alfred has taken such pains to lard the talk with period references that after having been bombarded with such slang expressions as "bozo," "bimbo," "skiddoo," "dirty skirt," "the cat's pajamas" and "applesauce," along with references to Clara Bow, Texas Guinan, Queen Marie of Romania, Snappy Stories, horehound drops, nickel cans of peas, the A&P Gypsies and cherry smashes, I began to get the feeling I was trapped in a glossary instead of a play. Only once, when eating pizzas (practically unknown to the great American public until after World War II) on trolleys was mentioned, was I confident that Alfred was not a nostalgic octogenarian, after all.
Add to this cast's diligent attempt to combine Irish-American brogues with Brooklynese ("woid" for "word," "Narras" for "Narrows") and the evening begins to take on the air of a documentary.
It is more than the sketchy nature of the play that suggests it might better have served as the book for a musical. For there is a considerable and tuneful recorded score by Claibe Richardson that includes a few songs with unfortunately inept lyrics by Alfred that are sung by Dunaway and others.
Outstanding and exceedingly welcome is a vibrant comedy performance by Audrie Neenan, making her Broadway debut as that familiar character, the heroine's best pal, in this case the feisty and rough-spoken Lulu, who eventually marries the Italian streetcar conductor Packy (Jo Polito) and finds the good life, represented by a fur coat (Fran's is cloth with a ratty fur collar) in Smithtown. Neenan is a delightful find, and I could almost hear her singing Shirley Booth's big number "Look Who's Dancing" from the musical "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn."
There are other engaging performances (and again, broad musical-comedy ones) by Terrance O'Quinn as Fran's dashing hubby-to-be, Martin (Lugs) Walsh; Kurt Knudson as an irate German neighbor; Colin Stinton as a stuffy potential beau; and Paul McCrane as another tentative boyfriend, Aloysius (Wishy) Burke, whose death in 1935 is a cause for much mourning. Bernie McInerney plays the hard-bitten uncle forcefully, and Beverly May gets her moment (following Wishy's funeral) as the aunt.
Gerald Gutierrez has staged the book resourcefully in a revolving skeletal set by John Lee Beatty that serves for exterior and interior scenes while suggesting a row of tenements, and that even includes a trolley car, the whole sensitively lighted by Dennis Parichy. Nancy Potts' costumes are excellent. But the play, like the set, is too skeletal to satisfy.
It is nearly 17 years since Faye Dunaway last trod a New York stage. Yet the transparent good looks, that impeccable bone-structure, that unmistakable look of class, is as evident now as it was when she became an overnight star in William Alfred's Hogan's Goat.
Last night at that elegant jewel-box of a playhouse, the Little Theater, Miss Dunaway returned, appropriately enough in another play by Alfred, this time written specially for her, The Curse of An Aching Heart. Fortunately the title is almost the worst thing about it. But first a word or so on Miss Dunaway.
She is an actress of image rather than technique. She floats with a character, becoming its slave rather than its master. Her face is a clean slate - her features chiefly remarkable for the way the evoke a fugitive memory of loveliness.
Miss Dunaway has a stellar grace - but nothing so vulgar that you could put your finger on it. Her acting comes from within, it emanates her performance with a cold inner glow that sheds more light than heat.
Watch her entrance in this play - it is not quite her entrance because she has a one-line blackout as a prologue, but it will do. She wheels on cheekily sporting roller skates and a kid-smug grin. It is Brooklyn in 1923 and Frances Anna Duffy is learning about life and boys. Probably in that order.
With no effort at all, certainly with no make-up and no discernible acting, Miss Dunaway startlingly becomes the waif-like, tough and vulnerable orphan that Alfred has envisaged as a symbol of growing up poor, proud and Catholic, between the wars.
We see her journey from schoolgirl to flapper, note her traumatic experience with her much-loved uncle, watch the stubborn disintegration of her marriage with her one true love who turns out to be a drunk. At the end of the tunnel, she emerges in 1942, her face wan with trouble yet somehow luminous with experience. She has taken the common currency of the day and turned it into the gold of living.
The play is a vehicle - and in many respects a ramshackle one at that. Alfred's writing is crowded with details of truth yet at the summing up offers no revelation. Even its insight - that survival is goal enough in itself and brings its own rewards - is commonplace enough for a fortune cookie.
Yet the play is crammed with careful observation as a life grows in Broolyn. The Victrola in the corner, the ice-box near the sink, the cast-iron trees of fire escapes, Nancy Potts' vividly realized period costumes, the streetcar (yes, in John Lee Beatty's cleverly apt if unattractive setting is a real streetcar) called Brooklyn rather than desire.
It is this shorthand glimpse of a longhand world that - apart from its portrait of the lady as a survivor - that is the play's strength. It is also, sensibly, these vignettes of reality, goblets of truth (two hard-edged kids shamefacedly confessing their unlikely virginity, or a reconciliation at a funeral home) that the director Gerald Gutierrez concentrates on, trying to catch the moment on the wing.
There are some neatly turned performances here. Audrie Neenan is a riotous Lulu, Frances' spunky best friend, Jon Polito is equally delightful as the streetcar conductor who loves her, while Beverly May and Bernie McInerny are almost tangibly convincing as the uncle and aunt who bring Frances up.
This is a rambling but extraordinarily sweet play. It can conjure up a nostalgia for a time and play you never knew, the sounds and smells of a childhood that was never yours. And it has Miss Dunaway on skates, on ice, and best of all, on stage.
This much can be said for the star, Faye Dunaway, and the author, William Alfred, of ''The Curse of an Aching Heart'': they are not playing it safe. Mr. Alfred has tried to write a drama that remakes kitchen-sink naturalism with bold, impressionistic sleight-of-hand. Miss Dunaway, leaving her recent Hollywood viragoes behind, attempts to impersonate a working-class Irish girl who travels between the ages of 14 and 33. As it happens, both playwright and star fail - but not ignobly. If ''The Curse of an Aching Heart'' has the same leaden gait as this season's other female star vehicles, it does at least yearn to soar.
This is Miss Dunaway's first New York stage appearance since 1965, when she and Mr. Alfred, a Harvard professor and poet, both came to prominence as a result of their collaboration on ''Hogan's Goat.'' ''Aching Heart,'' which opened last night at the Little Theater, picks up where they left off then. The setting is again Irish Brooklyn, with the time frame advanced from the 1890's to 1923-42. The atmosphere is once more heavy with period, religious and ethnic flavor. And Miss Dunaway again plays a heroine challenged by unbearable heartbreak.
This time that heroine is named Frances Walsh. Her sadnesses are many. After losing both parents, Frances is adopted by a beloved uncle who proves to have incestuous longings. After a long wait to win the neighborhood lothario in marriage, she then loses the husband to booze. But this woman isn't deterred from, as Mr. Alfred puts it, ''hugging life.'' ''When there's no going backward or going forward, where do you go?'' asks Frances. The handsome Miss Dunaway answers the question by marching forward, chin out, to seize what small daily victories over existence she can.
Mr. Alfred's drama, meanwhile, marches backward, forward and around the bend. Constructed as a memory play, ''Aching Heart'' begins at the end, then takes long leaps through the past before returning to its opening image. If there is nothing inherently wrong with this flashback format, there is something perverse about the way Mr. Alfred utilizes it. Almost without exception, the key events in Frances's life - her entire marriage, her husband's decline, her angriest confrontations with her uncle - take place during the years that the playwright chooses to skip.
By refusing to show us Frances's harsh trials first-hand, Mr. Alfred reduces her triumph over them into a sentimental abstraction. The heroine may repeatedly boast of her resilience in the face of misery, but her fortitude isn't meaningful or dramatic once removed from its immediate emotional context. And sometimes the narrative context is missing as well. Mr. Alfred often dallies far too long before relating the major crises that have unfolded off stage during a previous, time-abridging scene change. The chronology in the Playbill doesn't prevent ''Aching Heart'' from lurching in and out of coherence for much of its two intermissionless hours.
This isn't to say that Mr. Alfred is mindlessly careless. His elliptical technique is too consistent not to be intentional. He wants to do what writers should - to rearrange the patterns of reality into art rather than replicate them verbatim. But his method can only pay off if the scenes we do see are revelatory of the heroine and her important relationships. Instead we get dithering, oddly shaped comic vignettes that frequently focus on minor players. Much energy is wasted on Frances's brash best friend (Audrie Neenan) and her beau, an Italian trolley conductor (Jon Polito) - neither of whom ever rises above musical comedy stereotype in either writing or performance. We learn more about Frances's two wan, also-ran suitors than we do about her intended. A loud, fat German neighbor (Kurt Knudson) keeps popping up solely to revive corny gags reminiscent of radio's ''Fibber McGee and Molly'' era.
Given the nonstop use of period lingo and references - Theda Bara, Clara Bow and Jeanette MacDonald are all worked in - one wonders if Mr. Alfred got so swept away by his affection for a quaint past that he lost sight of his original theatrical mission. Some dialogue seems to exist only to call attention to vanished folkways and slang, from ''double cherry smashes'' to ''cat's pajamas.'' Yet when the playwright gets around to handing us his messages, he lapses into all too timeless bromides. We're portentously told that everyone is put on earth ''for something - for someone,'' and that ''it's people you remember'' in life.
Nostalgia dominates the production as it does the writing. Much use is made of pastiche period songs by Claibe Richardson and a streetcar that circles the stage on an honest-to-God track. The director, Gerald Gutierrez, and his skillful designers - John Lee Beatty, Dennis Parichy and Nancy Potts - give the antique Brooklyn of ''Aching Heart'' a burnished copper glow. Would that the acting were so delicate. In a large supporting cast, only Paul McCrane, Terrance O'Quinn and Colin Stinton, as Frances's men, and Beverly May, as her aunt, try for subtlety. Throughout the company, accents come and go.
As for Miss Dunaway, she is playing without a net in the scenes that require her to roller skate, prattle and preen like a juvenile. Though she sometimes succeeds in avoiding cuteness, her task becomes impossible when we're asked to accept her as a contemporary of the cast's young men. In the adult passages, the actress grabs her proud and anguished moments, but the writing won't allow her to stitch the takes into a complete character; we feel that she, like us, is observing Frances from a remote distance.
Yet it's also true that Miss Dunaway's absence from the theater has not dimmed her stage technique. She's usually in command. I wish I could say the same for Mr. Alfred, a sensitive writer whose heart surely aches for his cherished Brooklynites far more than this bloodless play lets on.