Bernard Slade, the author of last night's labored hodgepodge at the Booth, a two-character comedy called "Special Occasions," has gone to such lengths to keep subsidiary characters off the stage that he hardly knows what to do with the two who inhabit it. In fact, they seem to spend half the evening talking about the absentees. Then, for variety's sake, there's the ever-present telephone and its noxious adjunct for recording messages.
Suzanne Pleshette and Richard Mulligan are such amiable and deft performers that one aches for them in the ordeal Slade has put them through. When we first encounter Amy and Michael Ruskin, it is in their California living cell outside whose French windows an orange tree stands, and continues to stand, emblematic of the play's stagnancy, through subsequent winter scenes in Aspen, Colo., and ones in the heart of Manhattan. The "special occasions" are anniversaries, weddings, funerals, play openings and other catastrophes.
As he looks on at the start, she is unwrapping presents received during a just-ended 15th wedding anniversary celebration, a party held despite the fact that they're about to be divorced. Over the next 10 years, we follow their fortunes and misfortunes, mostly involving their three children and their own attachments to other partners, including a brief marriage between Amy and Michael's best friend and lawyer.
The offstage happenings, which reach as far as Hawaii, are so numerous and shattering (the Aspen scene is in a hospital where the son has been placed in a burn unit after a spectacular auto accident) that they could keep a soap-opera audience enthralled for at least five years. As it is, the walls of David Jenkins' cumbersome set must keep shifting about so often, with suitable changes of furniture, that we sometimes lose track of where we are.
He's a reformed television writer turned playwright, first with a flop (there's even a 30-second scene in a Broadway theater lobby unaccountably equipped with a phone he uses to call his wife out West so he she can hear the laughter inside; as George S. Kaufman once observed, someone must have been telling a joke in the back of the theater), and then with a hit. After that, he decides, at 50, to give up writing, aware that his talent is "minimal," a lesson from which Slade might have profited after "Tribute," "A Romantic Comedy," and, as far as I'm concerned, "Same Time, Next Year."
Michael's a shy, self-inquiring, yet voluble type. Amy's "competitive" but inwardly insecure, causing her to become an alcoholic (oh yes, that too). And after all is said and done, they end as they began, a decade having passed for them and for us, dancing to a living-strings recording of "Love Is Here to Stay."
The laughs are few and far between, and one of the two biggest comes from a line so hoary that Slade, in self-protection, has Michael add, "That's from an old joke." The other big laugh is occasioned by one of the many vulgarisms she is forced to utter in her enchanting contralto, and that under the circumstances sound so much more offensive than the street language spewed from other more honest plays than this wholly synthetic, confused one.
She looks marvelous throughout in her many costume changes, and he (Michael has to change clothes a great deal, too, of course) is extremely resourceful given such thankless material. Rise above it, they can't, neither one; but they never cease struggling to rise to it.
Gene Saks is credited with the direction, but the stagehands who keep shoveling, swiveling and trundling the scenery about (all but that orange tree) deserve equal billing. The play doesn't move an inch, but the scenery is forever on the go.
Bernard Slade writes plays about love. Or perhaps he doesn't write them. Perhaps they write themselves, and Slade merely provides the theme, punctuates it with jokes and lets his typewriter do the talking. They are - the fourth, Special Occasions, arrived at the Music Box last night - seemingly so painless, painlessly so seamless.
The first, Same Time, Next Year, was about tactfully adulterous love, the second, The Tribute concerned filial love, while the third Romantic Comedy suggested mistimed love. Now with Special Occasions Slade has given us a play about divorced love.
He has returned to the formula - two characters and a time span - that worked for him so well in Same Time, Next Year. At the beginning of the play Amy and Michael are celebrating their 15th wedding anniversary and planning their divorce. It is what experienced playgoers will recognize as a piquant yet totally unlikely situation. Such situations are Slade's forte, and he never plays them pianissimo.
Because they both write successful Broadway comedies Bernard Slade is frequently compared with Neil Simon. There is a big difference. Simon writes about life as it is, whereas Slade is far more concerned with life as it should be. His plays are frequently funny - and like Simon his jokes are not all merely wisecracking one-liners - yet Slade tends to trivialize serious situations - although this was not true of his most seriously felt play. The Tribute - and to sugarcoat realities.
The present play celebrates Amy and Michael's 10-year divorce following their 15 year marriage, and the special occasions of the title, are those family gatherings, a burial here, a baptism there, that continue to bring them together. Also, over the decade, we can see their development as people (although they are as tediously superficial at the end as they are at the beginning, even if both the tediousness and the superficiality are different) and their establishment of a loving friendship.
Superficial Amy and Michael may be, but they are not unamusing, and Slade milks their situation with the same kind of hearty, yet effortless gusto that has characterized his other plays. Here he gives us an evening that works on its level of slick quaintness - for example, joke surprises come regularly like the chirping of a cuckoo clock. But for anyone wanting more weight with their wit and more depth to their comedy, Special Occasions will probably seem a case of too much fluff surrounding too little stuff.
However the play is expertly done. Gene Saks' staging moves as smoothly as oil on ice, with just the right mixture of the slick and the chilling, while the two performers, Richard Mulligan and Suzanne Pleshette, are very classy acts and, so far as one can judge, fairly classy actors.
This is particularly true of Mulligan as the middle-aged adolescent writer stumbling through life with the oddly engaging air of a lost dog - looking for a kennel. He is funny and charming. Just as funny but perhaps a smidgin less charming is Miss Pleshette as the ex-alcoholic, over-achieving wife.
Both of these glossily gift-packaged characterizations, in performance and conception, do, however, underline the basic weaknesses of the play. Why should we be interested in these people in the first place? And, even given interest, why did they ever marry in the second. They are a couple monstrously unsuited for anything other than divorce.
Slade's typewriter still keeps clacking out its jokes and occasional felicities. But the clacking sounds more insistent and less spontaneous than hitherto. Perhaps it is simply better at adultery than divorce, or perhaps it just needs a vacation, or at least a new ribbon.
Don't get me wrong - Special Occasions is not a bad evening in the boulevard theater, undemanding and provocative only to the point of the hidden cliche. But it is not, by any stretch, a special occasion.
Suzanne Pleshette left the New York theater for Hollywood over two decades ago, but she hasn't been wasting her time. In recent years - most notably during her six-season run as the sensible yet wooly wife on television's ''The Bob Newhart Show'' - she has been honing her considerable talent as a comic actress. This is no small feat, for television usually tends to wear down and coarsen its stars as the years roll by. But not Miss Pleshette. Though working in a medium that often prizes falseness, she became incapable of giving a performance that was anything less than honest.
In Bernard Slade's ''Special Occasions,'' which opened at the Music Box last night, Miss Pleshette proves that she can translate her skills from the screen to the stage with no loss of intimacy. Her throaty voice, wide-open smiles and quick intelligence are as alluring as ever - and are projected with ease throughout the house. As is her style, every physical and vocal gesture is simple and direct. One is pleased to watch her engage in even such mundane activities as pouring herself a belt of bourbon or marching forward to announce, with pride, that she's on the verge of becoming a condominium entrepreneur.
But there's no use pretending that Mr. Slade gives her many moments that are not mundane. ''Special Occasions'' is an attenuated television play that uneasily mixes the conventions of the situation comedy and soap opera. It's not nearly as amusing as ''The Bob Newhart Show''; it's just longer and more sparsely populated. Rather than exploit Miss Pleshette's talents, Mr. Slade usually settles for letting her model an attractive array of Jennifer von Mayrhauser costumes. The actress does that very well, too - but it does seem a waste.
A two-character work, ''Special Occasions'' revamps the premise, but not the structural gimmick, of Mr. Slade's ''Same Time, Next Year.'' In that earlier comedy, a pair of illicit lovers carried out a series of yearly assignations designed to prove that a married man's best friend is his mistress. In the new play, a just-divorced couple keep meeting in a series of similar, calendar-leaping scenes so that we might learn that an ex-married man's best friend is his ex-wife. There's one other change as well: Unlike the one-set ''Same Time,'' this play requires two turntables of scenery to show us the weddings, funerals and high-school graduations that bring the couple together. The distinction proves a technical one, however, for David Jenkins's sets (somberly lighted by Tharon Musser) look pretty much alike.
The heroine and hero announce their personality traits early on and rarely develop more depth than posterboards. Amy Ruskin is an aggressive go-getter who is defined by her tendency to smoke, drink and use ''curse'' words to excess. (Miss Pleshette's big lines in Act I all involve the use of one such word; a second is added to her repertory for Act II.)
Her former husband of 15 years, Michael, is a television-writer-turned-playwright who has trouble expressing emotions and instead houses his ''deep-seated rage'' in migraine headaches and lower back pains. He is played by Richard Mulligan in a blustery manner that encapsulates all the broad television habits Miss Pleshette avoids.
Many of the dozen-odd scenes, lugubriously staged by Gene Saks, contain roughly the same elements. First, we are told what special occasion has brought Amy and Michael together. Then we are told of some putatively shocking bombshell that has occurred in their lives since the last scene - a death in the family, a new marriage or dissolution of same, a major medical or psychological crisis. Finally we are brought up-to-date on the goings-on of an increasingly large and indistinguishiable group of never-to-be-seen supporting players - Amy and Michael's parents, their current lovers or spouses, their three children and the children's lovers, spouses and children.
Though it often seems that much of ''Special Occasions'' is taking place offstage, Mr. Slade does have one variation up his sleeve: In no fewer than four scenes, the action is quite literally phoned in. We also get a scene in which the climax is played over a tape cassette, as well as one which consists of watching Michael listen to his telephone-answering machine. At such times, ''Special Occasions'' might as well be recited by a pair of Western Union messenger boys.
Indeed, there's so much catch-up information to be conveyed in each scene that the jokes get short shrift. A few are funny, but others deal with such irrelevant matters as religious cults, gynecology and Christmas trees. In desperation, the playwright sometimes will compromise such characters as he has for the sake of a cheap laugh. In Act I, a monologue in which a troubled Michael confesses to an analyst is totally trivialized by a forced, reality-puncturing punch line that concludes it. In Act II, one of the couple's children, previously described as a sensitive musician, is suddenly torpedoed for another inessential gag.
But if ''Special Occasions'' is usually mechanical and false, Miss Pleshette remains natural and true. Because we never understand why she would ever want to be the obnoxious Michael's wife or friend, her best bits occur when she violently pushes her partner away or tells him where to get off. While it's impossible for Miss Pleshette to save the evening single-handedly, it is possible, one hopes, that Broadway will save her for the festive theatrical occasion she deserves.