Let us celebrate the Cronyns. The perfection of their art and the fact that this may mark their last dual appearance are sufficient reasons for devout playgoers to make for the Golden, where Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn opened last evening in "The Petition," a two-character piece by Brian Clark.
It is a flimsy vehicle, and even at a mere 90 minutes it would seem overlong in other hands. But the veteran husband-and-wife team transform this dross into a finer substance, so that watching and listening to their interplay is as engrossing as sitting before any matched pair of champions.
Though Clark has laid down a pattern and written with flashes of wit, he hasn't made it easy for the players. They are a British couple - Lady Elizabeth and Gen. Sir Edmund Milne - married half a century and now passing this time, in the two hours before noon, in their apartment in London's fashionable Belgravia section.
Since Clark has provided few real surprises, carefully planted along the way, it would be unfair to reveal them here and rattle his slight structure. It begins with the two, he in an easy chair and she on a sofa, hidden behind the pages of two morning newspapers, hers the Guardian and his the more conservative Times.
He is sputtering over a petition to ban the bomb signed at the top by another retired fellow officer he considers a ninny and, further on, by none other than Lady Elizabeth. His rage is the result of his army training, loyalty to his queen, and conviction that the very existence of the bomb is a safeguard against a nuclear war.
But his wife's action has a deeper significance than he imagines. It is based on the conviction that the bomb will inevitably be used and blow us all to hell, but her signing of the petition and intention of speaking at an Albert Hall rally 10 days hence represent determined attempts to make positive statements before she's dead and gone. She is in her early 70s, he is 80.
His fussing and fuming, while she calmly and amusedly counters him, dredges up buried details of their married years, along with reminiscences of Calcutta nights during Britain's glory days, but they sort of clank into place in Clark's jerry-built play.
Yet the stars' resourceful performances, his of a martinet whose stern front can crumble and hers of a graceful lady of sterner stuff as well as humor, go a long way toward hiding the seams in a work that, but for its central issue, might have been constructed 50 years ago. Cronyn, impeccably groomed and striding about as if still in command, and she, looking exquisite in a flowing blue outfit, hold us fascinated throughout.
Peter Hall has directed the pair like two major pieces in an end game, and John Bury, Hall's frequent collaborator, has designed the work (set, lighting, dress) in perfect accordance with the politely restrained atmosphere. As a play, "The Petition" is thin stuff. But as a vehicle, it serves well for our most consistently gratifying acting team since the Lunts.
Love, tenderness, and conviction will always work on stage; they can transcend half-lies, and provide sentimentality with the inner truth of sentiment. So it was last night at the John Golden.
As the curtain rises on John Bury's spare yet eloquent setting for Brian Clark's entertaining new play The Petition, the sharp-eyed could instantly recognize part of the plot.
We have elicited from our playbill that it is a two-character play (in fact a specially wheeled vehicle for our theater's most formidable double-act, Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn), and that the play takes place in a flat in London's Belgravia - a smart part of town - and the two characters in question are clearly named as part of Britain's military hierarchy, General Sir Edmund Milne, and Lady Milne.
The set is neatly split in two. Stage left is all oak paneled and clubbily masculine, with bottles of Scotch and a water decanter on a sideboard. Stage right is chintz, cretonne, and feminine.
Two domains in one household. The General is clad in impeccably well-worn tweeds and a Brigade tie. His lady is dressed in those Knightsbridge-anonymous draperies, probably from Harvey Nichols.
Their heads are buried in breakfast newspapers - his and hers. And bang comes at least the seeds of the story, the big tip-off. He is reading the conservative Times. She is reading the radical Guardian.
The General is not amused. Indeed the General is furious. Speechless, it seems, but furious. Nearing genteel apoplexy. His attention has been ambushed by a full-page advertisement in The Times, for a "Ban-the-Bomb" petition advocating the West's firm renunciation of a First Strike.
His real anger is focused on the petition's first signatory - a fellow General, who finds himself in unlikely company with the customary band of anti-nuclear pacifists.
He reads on, reciting this motley list of people he so thoroughly despises, when suddenly he stumbles on his own wife's name. His name! His family name. An army family. A signatory to an anti-nuclear petition, practically a pacifist manifesto.
How could she? And how could he not know that she could? That is the play. It takes place one morning between 10 a.m. and noon.
After 50 years of seemingly happy marriage, children, grandchildren, a successful army career, and a contented retirement (although, as the General reminds us, British Army officers do not retire, they "go on half-pay"), these two seemingly antediluvian products of a now disestablished English establishment face their moment of truth.
Starting with the implications of the petition, they embark on a summing-up, a last roll-call before death.
The playwright, Brian Clark, is, as T. S. Eliot once observed of the Jacobean John Webster, "much-obsessed with death." And also with readily assimilated moral positions.
His previous Broadway hit, Whose Life Is It, Anyway?, dealt with the incurable patient's inalienable right to die. Here the moral simplicity is concentrated on nuclear warfare, and the fact of death remarked upon as the reason for living.
In this device-strewn exchange (the General and his lady seem to learn more about one another in this crucial 2 hours than they have in 50 years of marriage), the way they both lived, with themselves and with one another, is cursorily, if melodramatically, examined.
The play is not deep, or rather its depths are not profound, and in some ways it makes the same degree of appeal to our emotions and beliefs as does the totally differently angled Precious Sons, except that one is Chicago Gothic, while the other is Belgravia Antique.
Yet Sir Peter Hall's confident direction, the exquisitely modulated and richly satisfying performances of Miss Tandy and Mr. Cronyn, together with Mr. Clark's careful writing (he is of the Terence Rattigan school of playwrighting, and here recalls, at a respectful distance, such Rattigania as Separate Tables or The Browning Version) make The Petition into a pleasantly strong, if undemanding, evening in the theater.
Miss Tandy - who is looking more and more like Dame Sybil Thorndike - is luminously beautiful as the unexpectedly liberated General's wife. This is acting of seamless simplicity, where even her breathing becomes a statement of character.
Mr. Cronyn has the more difficult role to hoe. The General observes to the wife that: "You are treating me as some sort of caricature," even suggesting that he is "a black-and-white dinosaur in a technicolor world." Such complaints might well have been addressed by Cronyn to his playwright.
Yet when the chips are down it is the actors - with Cronyn touchingly vulnerable and mood-perfect as the soft-crusty old warrior, and Tandy misty-eyed and protective, knowing that to love is to understand - together with Sir Peter's authoritative duet handling of actors and text that enables the play to become more than merely an upscale kind of Carry On, Belgravia!
There is a melancholy, autumnal sweetness to this play - the kind of sweetness that many found in On Golden Pond - and yet it is to the production's credit that even in the play's riskily slick final gesture that sweetness never cloys, but remains spring-fresh on the palate.
There comes a time halfway through ''The Petition,'' a new play by Brian Clark, when an elderly woman tells her elderly husband an unbearably sad secret. The characters are Sir Edmund and Lady Elizabeth Milne of Belgravia, but audiences aren't visiting the Golden to study the marriage of some fictive English couple. The real subject of ''The Petition'' is one of the most illustrious marriages in the history of the American stage - that of the play's stars, Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn. And when Miss Tandy tells Mr. Cronyn her tragic news, what can only be described as a religious hush descends on the house. We know we are about to watch a Cronyn-Tandy moment, an acting phenomenon now unique in the Broadway theater and possibly never to come its way again.
The extended moment, exquisitely choreographed as a minuet of mortality by the director Peter Hall, involves virtually no dialogue. The white-haired Miss Tandy, dressed in an elegant silk outfit and seated on a creamy couch, tells her husband her secret, and he lurches away to fetch a Scotch at the bar across the room. Mr. Cronyn quickly loses interest in his drink. Silent and distressed, he stumbles back to the couch to sit beside his contemplative wife, then clutches and kisses her hands. Miss Tandy stares at him, but he unexpectedly looks straight ahead, his pained eyes almost pleading to the audience from behind his round spectacles. Mr. Hall holds the tableau to the edge of eternity, then abruptly blacks it out - perhaps to heighten the drama of Mr. Clark's play, but perhaps also to preserve this visual crystallization of a legendary theatrical relationship. The relationship, we've been indelibly reminded, is a triangular one, binding two actors to each other, and the pair of them to us.
There are other such Cronyn-Tandy moments - some achieved in tandem, some solo - dotting ''The Petition'' as well. Even their sum total won't convince anyone that Mr. Clark's play amounts to more than a high-minded television sketch padded out to two acts. Those who cherish the stars won't mind. As this couple's latter-day vehicles go, this two-character work is no match for the crackling ''Gin Game'' but it does spare us the supporting players and other clutter of ''Foxfire.'' The script accomplishes its essential job, which is to show off Mr. Cronyn and Miss Tandy to as much comic and touching effect as the circumstances of age will allow.
The petition of the title has been signed by Miss Tandy's Elizabeth, who violates the rules of her Tory class and the narrow convictions of her husband, a retired general, by joining a public protest against nuclear armaments. Mr. Clark, the author of ''Whose Life Is It Anyway?,'' inevitably provides some legalistic debate - with Elizabeth and Edmund offering contrasting interpretations of the lessons their society learned both from the glory days of the colonial Empire and from Chamberlain's appeasement of Hitler. The inconclusive ideological argument is eventually upstaged by several surprise revelations about the Milnes' long marital history. ''The Petition'' sees marriage as an unwinnable war whose skirmishes are papered over, if not resolved, by a constantly amended truce.
Although the dramatic mechanics creak and the issues (whether domestic or geopolitical) are explored with didactic superficiality, Mr. Clark deserves credit for refusing to succumb entirely to the genteel conventions of the boulevard play. However predictably the Milnes uphold the party lines decreed by the newspapers they're reading when the curtain rises (The Guardian for her, The Times for him), they do speak with refreshing, even clinical, honesty about such matters as sex, illness and death. Elizabeth and Edmund are not cloyingly cute old folks, and some of their banter, especially that dealing with real or imagined extramarital indiscretions, is witty.
John Bury's attractive, stylized set graphically dramatizes the chasm in the household, and, like Mr. Hall's use of pauses in the opening scene, recalls the designer and director's long collaboration on Pinter productions (the 1969 ''Landscape'' in particular). But the stars have their own distinctive rhythm, and Mr. Hall is smart enough to let them enforce it. If there's been some slippage in stamina - a few lines are fluffed and Mr. Cronyn makes no discernible stab at an English accent - the couple's concentration remains intense throughout. When Elizabeth tartly tells off the arrogant Edward - ''To the extent you are your opinions, you are the enemy'' - Miss Tandy draws blood. When Mr. Cronyn throws a temper tantrum, crumbling from a patrician relic of Edwardian rectitude into a blubbering, quivering baby, the spectacle is pathetic. One also cherishes the lighter, throwaway bits -notably a brief passage in which Miss Tandy paces a few steps behind her husband, puckishly mimicking his worried walk.
In a less humorous exchange later on, Elizabeth faces Edmund to explain just why she was driven to take a stand against war so late in life. Her voice heaving with righteous conviction, she tells the old soldier, ''You always said it's the last battle that counts.'' As the autumnal chamber music of ''The Petition'' makes evident, the valiant last battles of great actors count, too.