Arthur Kopit is worried about the nuclear arms race and the future of mankind. So are we all. He is unable to come up with any answers. Nor can we. He has gone to considerable lengths to tell us this in "End of the World," a lavish production that came to the Music Box last night.
The evening starts promisingly with his hero, Michael Trent (John Shea), in trench coat and snap-brim fedora, narrating in tried-and-true private-eye fashion. Trent, however, is a playwright living in a comfortable Connecticut home with his wife and young son, but temporarily out of ideas and behind in his mortgage payments.
A wealthy, elderly man, Philip Stone (Barnard Hughes), who claims he knows the secret of doomsday, seeks Trent out to write a play on the subject, a play he will produce at his own expense and for which he gives Trent a $5,000 advance. But Stone won't divulge the secret; Trent must find it out for himself.
The first act, titled "The Commission," is entertaining in other respects. A frustrated Trent poses the problem to his agent - Audrey Wood (Linda Hunt), no less! - who sallies forth to the Russian Tea Room to test the idea over lunch with a couple of colleagues, one a slob of an agent (Richard Seff) who thinks Paramount might be interested in a movie about doomsday, but only if it had a happy ending.
The second act ("The Investigation") finds Trent in Washington interviewing, among others, a presidential adviser (David O'Brien) and an expert on Soviet affairs (Jaroslav Stremien), and getting lost in a Byzantine maze of talk about deterrence and its multiples, including pre-preemtive strikes and other "defensive" actions less alarmingly referred to by Stremien as "anticipatory retaliation." The satire here is heavy-handed, and we are soon as lost in it as Trent.
In the final act ("The Discovery"), Kopit, who has been running around in circles all evening, finally paints himself into a corner with some high-flown rhetoric by the playwright's mysterious elderly patron that leads to a revelation so minute and simplistic as to send us out of the theater bone-weary from all the blather.
In the central role, Shea gives a performance of an excellence worthy of a much better play. And though both Hughes and Hunt are wasted in perfunctory roles, they score at every opportunity.
Harold Prince has staged the swollen evening brilliantly, deploying a large cast with masterly strokes. Clarke Dunham's scenery, though overpowering, is interesting in itself, the furnished settings backed by seven very tall white panels on which projections (designed by Dunham and Lisa Podgur) establish the changing scenes from Manhattan skyscrapers to Washington and other backgrounds, and finally, in a what's-to-become-of-our-children touch, an expanding drawing of a child's sketch of blossoming trees, signed at the end by Trent's 11-year-old son.
As we have been forced to observe far too often this season: so much talent and so much effort, and all for nothing. Or almost nothing, for Kopit at least writes interesting dialogue and has dramatic flair. But aside from the roundabout, and eventually pointless, nature of "End of the World," Kopit is addressing a theatergoing audience in perfect accord with his honorable concerns, and therefore not likely to be stimulated beyond a dim feeling of self-satisfaction, and certainly not in the least provoked. Left empty-handed, more than anything else.
Michael Trent is a fictional playwright and a fictional Bogart-style private eye. His life is distracted and disturbed when he receives a rich commission from a mysterious Philip Stone to write a play investigating - well, the end of the world.
Is it possible? Is it likely? Is it inevitable? These are scarcely matters to be taken lightly - and Arthur Kopit, by the way, does not take them lightly. Humorously but not lightly.
Arthur Kopit, also by the way, is a playwright who has elected to write about Michael Trent, aforesaid fictional playwright and fictional Bogart-style private eye. Kopit, by the way, is real. Very real.
Kopit's play is called, with simplicity, End of the World. It opened last night at the Music Box, is very handsomely staged by Harold Prince, and has a fine cast led by John Shea, Barnard Hughes, and Linda Hunt.
Kopit is a disquieting playwright in that he never writes the same play twice. Works like Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Wings, or his epic Indians, even his book for the musical 'Nine,' have left an uncertain impression of wayward brilliance. Now, once more, he has given us something different, in this funny, clever, thoughtful, not always completely thought-out, play.
It is a complex, vastly entertaining, half-baked play. Clearly the comic style - perversely off-the-wall - could be well compared with, say, Christopher Durang.
But really for this kind of didactic dialectic, this kind of half-serious, half-humorous argument, you have to go back to Bernard Shaw. There is a quizzical Shavian perversity to this play that gives it its peculiar flavor.
For the hero - part playwright, part detective - has to do his investigations among the military establishment and the power brokers, and some of these gentlemen are not so far removed from the munitions manufacturer Undershaft in Shaw's Major Barbara.
But of course the lingo is now different. The lingo is now the language of doomsday, and Undershaft has become something like Dr. Strangelove.
We are told such new homilies as "a bluff taken seriously is much more valuable than a threat taken as a bluff." We are informed of the benefits of "anticipating retaliation rather than preemptive strikes," the merits of "a fail-safe, built-in breakdown machine," and offered the sage military intelligence that "going first is going best - no scenario has ever shown anything else."
As our hero in search of his play wanders through his cloud-cuckoo land of death, from the subject's first commission through its mysterious and sometimes over-obvious investigation, Kopit in the last part of the play comes across his discovery.
It is the concept of man as a self-destruct mechanism - man purveying death simply because it is there as an omnipresent temptation. It is not the world "not believing what it knows" - that idea is commonplace. No, as Kopit puts it: "There is a glitter to nuclear weapons - to release the energy that fuels stars!"
The deadly glitter of destruction - this is what the play is about, and in one telling moment, with the playwright faced with his son and the very principle of the death-force, Kopit reaches his bleakly pessimistic conclusion.
The faults of the play are windiness and hysteria. The merits are logic and humor - a gaggle of events in the Russian Tea Room, a duo of crazy experts talking of destruction as if it were a cooking recipe - and his final insight of doomsday's seductive fascination. Because - merely because - its possibility is with us.
Prince has staged the play as if it were a musical - its scenes, helped by Clarke Dunham's and Lisa Podgur's flexible projections, dissolve with cinematic ease.
As the godlike Philip Stone, a tempting Satan, a fallen angel of the anticipated Apocalypse, Barnard Hughes is implacably mysterious, making first his offer, than his move.
Linda Hunt - fresh from Oscar laurels - charms as a tough little leprechaun of an agent, and the other roles are, for the most part, capitally done.
Prince is perhaps rather less at ease in plays than with musicals, he tends to let his actors attitudinize too much. But this production style accepted - and here in this fantasy drama it can be - it works fine.
It works particularly with John Shea as the lone author in search of a character, the character of doom. Shea brings a sense of self-discovery to the role, starting with his self-mocking private-eye persona, finally emerging as the man of awareness and conscience.
End of the World is a black comedy, perhaps more comic than black, but ominously real.
''Any material can make a play - you just have to figure out how to handle it,'' says an agent to a playwright in Arthur Kopit's new comedy, ''End of the World.'' The agent speaks the truth but to no avail. In his play at the Music Box, Mr. Kopit alights on a red-hot subject - the specter of nuclear holocaust - and bungles it so completely that he might as well be writing about toadstools instead of mushroom clouds.
One must assume that ''End of the World'' is merely an aberration in the career of a talented writer whose distinguished credits include ''Indians'' and ''Wings.'' One might also say that Mr. Kopit deserves brownie points simply for thinking about the unthinkable at a time when many playwrights look obsessively inward. (Others may feel that it's more meretricious to trivialize serious issues than to ignore them.) The author can be given additional credit for doing his homework. In the program, Mr. Kopit thanks a large, ideologically ecumenical crew of notables who have helped shape his ideas - including Herman Kahn, Richard Pipes, Freeman Dyson and Jonathan Schell. These men's views often dribble out here, at a pace as attenuated as The New Yorker's serialization of some of their famous tomes.
The play does begin intriguingly. Michael Trent, the dramatist played by John Shea, appears in a trench coat and establishes Mr. Kopit's guiding metaphor. ''A playwright is very much like a detective,'' the hero declares, promising to track down clues that ''lead to the solution of a crime.'' The mood of mystery is heightened by Ken Billington's film-noir lighting scheme, and soon a detective story of sorts is launched. A wealthy mystery man named Philip Stone (Barnard Hughes) turns up at Trent's office with a Faustian offer. If the playwright will create a play about ''global doom,'' Stone will make the struggling writer as rich as the authors of ''Cats.''
It's not long after that, however, that ''End of the World'' reaches its dead end. Act I quickly bogs down as Trent debates ad infinitum whether he should accept Stone's commission. The decision-making process is padded out with many show-biz jokes, for Trent's agent (Linda Hunt) is named Audrey Wood, after the legendary real-life playwright's agent. When Wood goes to eat at the Russian Tea Room, we meet or hear about other recognizable show-biz operatives. Some of the gags are oh so terribly inside; the others predictably remind us that Broadway-Hollywood types only care about the bomb when it threatens to blow up a deal.
Once he at last decides to write the play in Act II, Trent travels to Washington with pad in hand to conduct research. Mr. Kopit then regurgitates his own research, in Reader's Digest condensations idly sugarcoated with gastronomic jokes: Trent meets one neo-Dr. Strangelove in a Japanese restaurant and others in a suburban gourmet kitchen. By Act III, a total dramatic, if not nuclear, freeze has set in. After more stalling, Trent finally solves the evening's ostensible riddles by discovering why the zillionaire chose him to write the play - and why civilization is so self-destructive. These issues are arbitrarily resolved in two pseudo-poetic speeches, one of which is a contrived, over-explicated parable about mankind's universal capacity for evil. The play ends with a reminder that bombs can kill children as well as adults - an uncontroversial epiphany that may bear repeating, but not in the numbing, knee-jerk manner of a maudlin public-service television announcement.
Mr. Kopit's craftsmanship is laissez-faire in the extreme. Little is done with the Pirandellian device of having a playwright write a play that may be the play we're watching; the notion is merely restated over and over without being woven inventively into the fabric of the work. The pulp- detective fiction affectations are also inorganic and pretentious. Mr. Kopit apparently believes that if Trent keeps babbling about puzzles and clues - and if unidentified characters wearing dark sunglasses appear periodically - then he's creating an intellectual detective story in the style of, say, Tom Stoppard's ''Jumpers.'' But there's no suspense in the play's line of thematic investigation or coherence to its narrative; the flashing neon hotel signs, sultry saxophone riffs and hard-boiled gangsterese do little except raise false audience expectations. It's only when Mr. Kopit sends up the horrifying Newspeak of the nuclear age - in phrases such as ''anticipatory retaliation'' - that we feel a witty playwright is at work. The director is Harold Prince, who keeps things moving as sleekly as possible on a stage decorated with atmospheric projections by Clarke Dunham and Lisa Podgur. With the strong exception of David O'Brien in two disparate roles, the supporting cast is poor. Among the stars, Miss Hunt is best; just as this actress's intelligence and dignity made her acceptance speech shine on Oscar night, so those attributes keep vulgarity at bay in the campy role of Audrey Wood. Mr. Hughes, alternately dressed in white or black as Stone, can't entirely disguise his apathy in a part that uses little of his large talent. Mr. Shea, who was so good in ''The Dining Room'' and the film ''Missing,'' gives a highly stylized performance - part Philip Marlowe, part sensitive artist - that, like the entire evening, is apocalyptically cute.