George Furth's "Precious Sons," which came to the Longacre last night, is like a memory play imperfectly remembered. Fabrication fills in the blind spots so that the whole thing assumes a jerry-built look. Yet some strong performances lend it a fitful air of credibility.
The strongest comes from Judith Ivey, playing a South side Chicago housewife circa June, 1949. Speaking in nasal Midwestern tones appropriate to the lower middle class environment, and bustling about in short, almost pigeon-toed steps, the actress is compelling even when the play itself, with its jerkily motivated plot, is in danger of letting her down. She is a memorable Bea and Ed Harris, as Bea's swaggering lightweight of a husband Fred, is equally fine whenever the script - and the occasionally overwrought direction - give him room.
With these two combative characters dominating the stage - loving it up and fighting it out - it isn't until near the end of the long first act that, in a quiet and moving scene between Fred and his younger son Freddy (Anthony Rapp), we come to realize we're seeing the largely autobiographical play through the boy's eyes. Like Furth, a Chicago native who was also probably around 14 at the time and who had a career as an actor before turning playwright, Freddy has already begun to earn money as an actor.
And at the play's close, he has with Bea's encouragement, left for New York to join the touring company of a Broadway success.
For the first hour or so, "Precious Sons" is a kind of a rough comedy as Fred horses around with his wife and sons - Freddy and his older brother Art (William O'Leary) - while Bea tries to restrain him. But we come to learn that Fred, a can manufacturing company employee, is determined to see his sons through the University of Chicago. He is, however, so afflicted with stomach ulcers he seems unlikely to last out the play - even though it only covers a couple of days.
I'm not sure whether it was Furth's idea or that of the director, Norman Rene, to create a Sheppard-like scene in which crockery and other items are tossed about. In any case, Ivey is forced to overdo a tantrum a bit by not merely smashing plates, but sweeping shelves clean and then, with considerable effort, pulling a tall breakfront form its niche to make it crash to the floor with great force.
There are some funny lines and situations in "Precious Sons" - and some genuine feeling, too. But there's so much contrivance that you're never quite sure where you or the writer stand. You do know, however, that you're in very good hands with Ivey, Harris and, in his own quiet way, young Rapp. And somewhere in all this there is a play - thought not a particularly original one - that Furth hasn't yet unearthed.
There are many levels to reality in the theater; it reveals realities like an onion has skins. And which reality is George Furth aiming at in Precious Sons, which opened last night at the Longacre Theater?
This handsomely produced rarity, a new American play on Broadway that did not originate from some place Off, has been blessed with two star-powered performers, Ed Harris and Judith Ivey, both offering immaculately balanced and compelling performances.
Indeed the play is worth seeing for these two portraits of people alive and fighting in suburban Chicago in 1949: Harris's blowhard Fred, a loud-mouthed, blue-collared junior executive, and Miss Ivey as his blowsy, loudmouthed, matriarchal wife Bea.
Terrific people - almost as real as sweat - caught in Furth's decently crafted dramatic capsule of time and place. So what is wrong with this picture, and with its reality?
At one level nothing, just as there is nothing actually wrong with those magazine covers that Norman Rockwell used to turn out, each picture a tiny descriptive hymn to some aspect of Americana.
And this is rather the effect - or at least the area of effectiveness - of Precious Sons. It is a reality that doesn't quite ring with the oddity that might convince one it were true.
You see, nothing much happens - but it happens in an exaggerated, over-compensated way, as if a fortune-cookie message could benefit from re-broadcasting and amplification.
Fred is a man in his mid-30s, who has worked in industry all his life, clambering up from assembly line to middle management. Now he is being offered a major promotion - a promotion that would make him manager of his own plant and which would carry him away to either Cincinnati or Houston.
That crisis June weekend in Chicago is, in more ways than one, a time for decision. Fred's eldest son Art (William O'Leary) has just graduated from high school, and is about to elope with his prom date sweetheart Sandra (Anne Marie Bobby); and the younger son Freddy (Anthony Rapp), who has already had considerable career as a child actor in Chicago, has to decide whether to pursue an academic career, which promises brilliance, or go on with his acting.
This is a Clifford Odets style of play - a drama with a recognizable situation, with firmly drawn, slightly cartooned characters, that arrives at a palatable conclusion acceptable to the audience.
Here there is some still predictable surprise in having the seemingly easygoing mother endowed with a will of iron. It is she who controls purse strings. It is she who effectively reaches the family decisions.
The All-American father - stern but indulgent by turn, his colorful language disguising a soft heart - paired with the lightweight and fluttery All-American Mom.
At first Boy meets Girl - but this inevitably leads to Dagwood meeting Blondie. And however tough Dagwood may seem on the outside, that is his match.
The boys in the case - a contrasted brace of Andy Hardies in both the introvert and extrovert mode - play their appointed family roles, and the girlfriend next door contributes her right quota of simpers and guffaws.
Norman Rene has staged this slice of family meatloaf with unobtrusive expertise; the setting by Andrew Jackness, a symphony in suburban chintz, is both apposite yet charming, while the costumes by Joseph G. Aulisi hit their 1949 mark with almost satirical aplomb.
The performances are nicely judged. The two sons, William O'Leary as the plebeian Art and Anthony Rapp as the more delicate, horseplay-shy, boy-actor Freddy, are very good, as is Anne Marie Bobby as a girl so typical they might have named the Sox for her.
Yet what the audiences will want to see are Mr. Harris and Miss Ivey, and both give off their best.
What is very attractive about their performances is the unforced sexual tension between them, playful yet intense, and perhaps better conveyed by their playing than by the playwright.
Miss Ivey stops just short of being too lovable - a tendency she should watch - but Mr. Harris has to stop at nothing.
He is one of the most "natural" actors - in both senses - in the world. Even when he slouchingly over-emphasizes slobbish good nature, he remains somehow charming.
He uses his likability as a smokescreen to shield his technique. This is a rare actor, one of those who walk around with their own image in their hand like a hat.
Precious Sons has a sort of validity to it - but it is the secondhand honesty of conventional things seen in conventional fashion.
It won't change your images of Chicago or the late '40s, but it might be good for a sentimental journey into nostalgia, even if it's a nostalgia for things you never knew before they became nostalgic.
In the most affecting speech in George Furth's new play, ''Precious Sons,'' Freddy, a 14-year-old child of Chicago's South Side, describes the joy of the theater. The year is 1949, a golden time for the American stage, and Freddy (Anthony Rapp), a fledgling child actor, may soon be offered a small role in the national company of ''A Streetcar Named Desire.'' The boy's meek voice grows musical as he describes his past experiences acting in theaters in the Loop. ''Of all the things there are,'' he says, ''a stage play is far and wide the most wonderful thing.''
Whether or not Freddy is an actual autobiographical stand-in - the Chicago-born Mr. Furth was an actor before writing Broadway's ''Company'' and ''Twigs'' - his love of the theater clearly matches the playwright's own. From its sepia-hued, elaborately realistic set (by Andrew Jackness) to the outsized roles it offers its two top-flight stars (Ed Harris and Judith Ivey), ''Precious Sons'' represents a concerted effort to evoke the grand American dramas of its author's youth. Mr. Furth means to write a heart-wrenching domestic tragedy of the old school, Big Postwar Themes included - the kind of play that made the stage seem wonderful for an entire generation.
The ambition is noble, but, a superb performance from Mr. Harris notwithstanding, the result is, at best, a mildly diverting, emotionally remote pastiche. For all its sobbing confrontations and breast beating (both verbal and literal), the play at the Longacre isn't stirring. While its people may well be real, Mr. Furth hasn't observed them from a fresh, imaginative perspective that might make them galvanize a stage. ''Precious Sons'' is so full of nostalgia for American classics of the past that it reduces its own characters to pallid stand-ins for the figures in those plays.
To be specific, Mr. Furth pairs the sensitive Freddy with his older brother, a happy-go-lucky jock (William O'Leary), much as if they were Arthur Miller's Biff and Happy Loman. Their father, Fred (Mr. Harris), is a weary Willy, a factory packhorse who missed the opportunities promised by the American dream of success. The mother, Bea (Miss Ivey), proves as pushy and neurotic a mom as Tennessee Williams's Amanda Wingfield. We also get shades of O'Neill - Dad still has his ''pipe dreams'' - and creaky melodramatics from Inge.
The familiarity of ''Precious Sons'' isn't necessarily a drawback - Neil Simon, Frank Gilroy and Paul Zindel, among others, have effectively recast some of the same texts - but the lack of texture and spontaneity gives the evening a paint-by-numbers flatness. Mr. Furth seems to feel that little people - the family's name is Small, no less - speak exclusively in cliches. The few trivial lines quoted from ''Streetcar'' in ''Precious Sons'' sound like poetry when set against Mr. Furth's utilitarian dialogue. Everyone says exactly what the playwright means, without frills. ''He wants to be so important, and he never will be,'' says Bea of Fred. ''All a man wants is for his sons to do better than he has,'' says the father.
These credos are then dramatized in a round-robin of family conflicts that all suddenly boil over during the same June graduation weekend. Should Fred accept a promotion that will require the family to leave Chicago? Should Freddy take the ''Streetcar'' job or pursue a promising academic career at a privileged high school? Will his dopier older brother matriculate at the state university, or repeat his father's much lamented teen-age errors by settling for the assembly line and early marriage?
Standing in the way of everyone's best-laid plans is the shrewish mother, a scatologically inclined ''big mouth'' who was shaped by her own youth: ''When you live through the Depression,'' Bea announces, ''you learn the value of the almighty dollar.'' Unfortunately, Mr. Furth is as manipulative as the poisonous matriarch. A few heart-to-heart father-son chats aside, ''Precious Sons'' is not propelled by its people but by externally applied plot twists.
Crucial letters and phone calls tend to arrive at the most advantageously ironic moments, and most scenes end with over-the-top confrontations or abrupt revelations of withheld secrets. Meanwhile, the baroque narrative fails to flesh out the characters. The real extent of Bea's mental instability and Fred's physical ailments (ulcers, incipient alcoholism) remains vague. The two brothers hardly seem to have met, and the actual state of their parents' love-hate marriage is elusive. We're apparently supposed to buy an otherwise unjustified sentimental ending simply on the ground that the Smalls are one of those stereotypically tempestuous couples who can't live together yet can't live apart.
That the play usually holds our attention, if not our interest, is attributable in part to Norman Rene's speedy, assured direction. He almost disguises Mr. Furth's tendency to repeat exposition endlessly. (A forthcoming meeting between Fred and his boss is announced almost every five minutes in Act I.) In Mr. Rene's supporting cast, Mr. O'Leary and Anne Marie Bobby (as the brother's girlfriend) do well enough by undernourished roles, and Mr. Rapp is a find as the ingenuous, withdrawn Freddy.
The company's only disappointment is the usually brilliant Miss Ivey - and she may well be a victim of the writing. While the actress has worked up a nasal Middle Western whine and exercises her unerring panache as a comedienne (even when the gag involves urination), she hasn't unearthed those pathetic or tragic depths needed to make monstrous mothers like Bea compelling. The woman emerges as a hateful, if flamboyant, nag: next to her, Mama Rose in ''Gypsy'' seems like Mother Teresa. It's because Bea never engages our compassion - or, failing that, our understanding - that Mr. Furth's play can't support its sudden transition from a comic first act (in which the sometimes amusing insult humor suggests a foul-mouthed ''Honeymooners'') to a lachrymose second.
The few times that ''Precious Sons'' does leap beyond its limitations usually occur when Mr. Harris is in charge. As he has demonstrated repeatedly in recent years, this actor is peerless when cast as a baffled Middle American working stiff trying to liberate himself from the chains of stoic masculinity. Indeed, Mr. Harris serves as both the evening's boon and reproach: in his performance, we find the effortless, bedrock dramatic authenticity that Mr. Furth so endearingly remembers but, for all his earnest labors, cannot re-create.