Middle-class mores are raked over the coals in James Duff's blistering comedy-drama, "Home Front." Opening last night at the Royale, it demonstrates the disruptive influence of a son, a Vietnam vet, on a suburban Dallas-Fort Worth household of four back in 1973. Moving stealthily across Thanksgiving, with startling eruptions in the commonplace surface activities of a conventional family, studied before and after an apparently disastrous dinner gathering, Duff's finely-drawn tale builds to an explosive climax.
You might suppose, after so many plays, books and films dealing with stricken veterans of that war - one thinks of David Rabe's brilliant "Sticks and Bones," in particular - that the subject had worn thin. But Duff, a young writer whose first full-length play this is (it was seen in a London fringe theater last summer under the more apt title of "The War at Home"), writes with sufficient force, acuity and skill to hold us from start to rending finish.
Frances Sternhagen, in the performance of her career, is wonderfully funny and eventually touching as the flibbertigibbet of a mother, Maureen, who bustles about the house, chattering and scolding nonstop with a nerve-shattering efficiency and determined cheeriness as she prepares for a day she never suspected had something to do with Indians.
Meanwhile, Carroll O'Connor, in a substantial performance wholly erasing his blustery TV image carried over into last season's flop, "Brothers," portrays a benign authority figure as the father, Bo. He is a retail merchant determined to have a nice day in spite of the distractions - among them petulant outbursts by the daughter Karen (Linda Cook, in a keen performance), who, though she can't wait to get out on her own, gives every sign of growing into a carbon copy of her mother.
But the truly disturbing element in this household is the son Jeremy, who sits brooding on the front stoop or in his room when he isn't provoked to sarcasm or outright venom by the others, and who refuses either to spruce up or even join the dinner party.
Jeremy, who has experienced a full set of horrors, including the suicide of a buddy, informs his sister, who can't understand his behavior, that he can sum it up in a single sentence: "I died." And since corpses aren't wanted in this household, he's sent packing at the end after having threatened his father with a gun and then broken down.
In this difficult and pivotal role, Christopher Fields, in his Broadway debut, provides the evening's only weak spot. He was evidently chosen because of his familiarity with the part, which he created in a New York workshop production. But Jeremy is a fatally haunted young man whose withdrawal and sudden flare-ups can only be explained by his terrible morbidity, and Fields, unfortunately, conveys littls sense of this, either in action or speech, until the very end. An interesting aspect of this remarkable work is, by the way, the fact that we are never allowed to feel sympathy, only pity, for any member of the family, much less the sullen Jeremy, who comes to life only to deride the shibboleths of his class and who feels that his father's refusal to advance him money to flee to Canada was only self-serving, a token of his own phony patriotism.
This by turns very funny and extremely bitter play has been directed with exceptional insight by Michael Attenborough, who staged the London version, too, also with Sternhagen. Sue Plummer's tidy, ordinary, suburban-cozy living-room set with its "cathedral" ceiling is flawlessly conceived, and Ken Billington's lighting suffuses it admirably. John Falabella's costumes, especially the variety worn by the astonishing Sternhagen as she bustles in and out while making preparations for the big day, are first-rate.
"Home Front" is an extraordinary piece of work, a major event in any theater season.
Even the electricity in the air is tense at the Royale Theater where, last night, James Duff's searingly memorable play, Home Front, started Broadway's New Year with a whole cannonade of bangs.
It is a play you will never forget with performances that will lodge in your mind like the photographs of people you once knew.
Don't be fooled. The play opens with Carroll O'Connor, chair-bound, Bunker-style, sounding off with domestic, quizzical despair at Thanksgiving and crossword puzzles. Frances Sternhagen - the epitome of American motherhood at its most acceptably rejectable - is buzzing around like a mother-buzzard.
There are children. Of course, there are children. A daughter (Linda Cook), who has been known to stay out late at the Country Club with her boy-friend, and a son (Christopher Fields), a rather morose boy, back from that unfortunate war in Vietnam.
He seems to be having a little difficulty in readjusting to the good life in middle America, Dallas-style, that Thanksgiving Day, 1973.
Don't be fooled. The play is hilariously funny, for a time. But slowly, but surely, the sit-com turns sour on us, the American dream fades and the reality of America's imperial fiasco bears down upon us, in this startlingly domestic setting. A Vietcong shell has burst into Archie Bunker's place and Norman Rockwell will never look the same again.
I cannot overpraise the adroitness with which Duff has planned his attack on our emotions. The way we are lulled with the clever familiarity of near atavistic family phrases of maternal martyrdom and paternal authority, the whole rigmarole of genteel child abuse, with the entire family bickering like stuck needles on well-worn gramophone records.
Slowly we realize that the boy mooning on the stoop is not just good ol' Andy Hardy, updated and with a terminal case of the blahs. This misanthropic kid we - yes us, Archie, Norman and the whole gang - permitted to become a licensed killer.
Now, glowering yet listless in self-satisfied self-pity and self-hatred, he is deeply wounded, perhaps irreversibly disturbed. That kid on the stoop is a time-bomb - left there by careless love, godless religion and unthinking materialism.
It is a very funny play - seemingly very natural: Readers of Erma Bombeck might start to love it. Until, about a third or so into the second act, the fuse on the time-bomb starts sizzling. What happens? One never can tell in situations like this, can one?
The play was originally staged in London last season, at the Hampstead Theater, with Miss Sternhagen starring. It was to have been directed by Alan Schneider, but when he was killed in an accident, the staging passed to the young British director, Michael Attenborough, now performing the same honors on Broadway.
It is beautifully done, and it is almost amazing that a young Englishman would have the right sensibility for such a distinctively American play - although when we recall how well so much British theater is staged by Americans, perhaps it is not so surprising. I guess TV and the whole global village has made us into one culture - be it Dallas or Hampstead.
The authenticity of the production extends to Sue Plummer's sweetly prosaic setting and the convincing costuming by John Falabella, and it not just extends to the eight performances, it practically engulfs them.
Eight performances? And only four characters? The point is that all the actors have, in effect, to play two roles. One is pretty much a sit-com stereotype, and the second, the internal role, is that same stereotype's subtext, its reality.
The four actors absolutely gleam. O'Connor, first as comic bigot and later as tragic symbol, is commandingly authoritative, recalling his TV persona with almost affectionate mockery, and then, calmly ripping it apart.
Miss Sternhagen has the flashiest part and she is flamboyantly, fussily, extravagantly outrageous. Amazingly she can give a whole string of accepted cliches the absolute imprint of spontaneity. Commonplaces drip from her as easily as she breathes, as she demands our horrified, yet so often amused, belief.
Miss Cook - as a young lady in training to become her own mother if not startled into life - has a fine night of it, but eventually the crux of the play rests squarely on the malcontent shoulders of the son. Fields is pain-perfect, his whole being a sort of naked web of pulsing nerves, pathologically traumatized by his family and his nation, a soured victim of circumstance, crucified by hypocrisy, impossible to like, impossible not to pity. And we also might feel a bayonet stab of shame.
This is a conventional play - nothing original about its technique, language, subject-matter or format. Yet Duff shows that the conventional play - when given an unconventional twist of insight - can move as many mountains as ever, and as many minds and hearts.
Carroll O'Connor has bounced back fast and well from ''Brothers,'' the vanity production that sputtered out after a single performance last season. In James Duff's ''Home Front,'' the new play at the Royale, the star is relaxed and giving; he's acting - not hyperventilating. But if this time Mr. O'Connor has admirably left behind the irascible Archie Bunker, his role is still that of an embattled paterfamilias and his script is still a would-be theatrical equivalent of ''All in the Family.'' True, ''Home Front'' is far superior to ''Brothers'' - what isn't? - yet television it remains.
Much like Norman Lear, Mr. Duff has tried to revivify old formulas (sitcom and melodrama) with a social conscience. His play contains slick, professionally polished scenes and jokes, and it tells the serious, if shopworn, tale of an embittered Vietnam veteran's homecoming. The enterprise might succeed on its own terms, were Mr. Duff's wit and conscience as sharp as Mr. Lear's. They're not. Far from matching the best of ''All in the Family,'' let alone such biting Vietnam-veteran plays as ''Sticks and Bones'' and ''Fifth of July,'' ''Home Front'' at times recalls Broadway's last domestic sitcom, ''Alone Together.'' Once again parents and children are squabbling incessantly in a suburban living room. If the ostensible topic of debate is ''the war,'' Mr. Duff so trivializes the Vietnam era that everyone might just as well be arguing over the car keys.
The setting is the Dallas-Fort Worth area in 1973, where the 23-year-old veteran, Jeremy (Christopher Fields), has joined his relatives for a terminally ironic Thanksgiving. Once a go-getter, the disconsolate young man would now rather clean his pistol and watch reruns of ''Gilligan's Island'' than seek employment. Dad, Mom (Frances Sternhagen) and Sis (Linda Cook) try to cheer Jeremy up, but to no avail. Let the others tell the sulky, sneering protagonist ''I love you!'' - as they do with rhythmic regularity - and he will inevitably respond with ''I hate you!'' and ''Shut up!''
Jeremy also threatens to skip town, and, whatever the play's contrary intentions, we can't wait for him to clear out. As written and acted, the hero is an unsympathetic lout whose alternately vicious and self-pitying behavior has little convincing connection to Vietnam. His few speeches recounting wartime experiences sound vague and phony - as if he were dredging up second-hand incidents from movies like ''Coming Home'' and ''The Deer Hunter'' rather than his own authentic nightmares.
Worse, Jeremy's objections to the war are neither moral nor ideological. His major gripe is not with the Government but with his parents, who refused to foot the bill for a draft-fleeing journey to Canada when he was 19. Given the many Americans who successfully resisted Vietnam duty as a matter of principle and without the aid of parental cash - and the many others who served and suffered - how are we supposed to care about the spoiled, empty-headed, unscarred Jeremy?
For all its anti-war rhetoric, ''Home Front'' remains simply an adolescent anti-Mom-and-Dad play. The author's anger, however genuine, is juvenile, not righteous - as typified by his hero's inane attempt to rationalize Vietnam atrocities as a form of symbolic patricide. The biggest villain - and dominant character - is the mother. An insufferable, self- martyring nag who's forever enforcing old-time family values, Jeremy's Mom is apparently meant to represent those Americans who blindly supported the war. In Miss Sternhagen's screechy snapdragon performance - which is equally overbearing in its pursuit of cheap laughs and cheap tears - she comes across as a grotesque caricature of every nettlesome Tennessee Williams heroine.
The director who permitted this fine actress to spin out of control is Michael Attenborough. He inherited the initial London production of ''Home Front'' (then titled ''The War at Home'') last spring, following the death of its intended director, Alan Schneider. Though some English directors can handle American material, Mr. Attenborough doesn't appear to be one of them. He does nothing to root Mr. Duff's Middle American buffoons in reality; even the set and costumes look like a patronizing Londoner's fantasy of Texan vulgarity. Nor has Mr. Attenborough negotiated the jarring mood-shift of a play whose Act I wisecracks give way to fisticuffs and preposterous gun-waving after intermission.
What the director mainly does is frame the action with a cliched image - Jeremy sitting catatonically on the front porch. It's to the credit of both Mr. O'Connor and Miss Cook that they fare so well with so little assistance. While the daughter amounts to no more than a clownish nitwit, Miss Cook eventually invests her with feeling and self-respect. The gentle and reflective Mr. O'Connor brings credibility to the father, who, in the tradition of pre-Lear sitcoms, works hard at an unidentified career and usually (if not always) knows best. It's in further keeping with the play's television prototypes that Dad's sagest advice is reserved for the final fadeout. Not without reason does Mr. O'Connor lower the curtain on ''Home Front'' by asking one and all to ''forget and go on.''