"Spoils of War," which is about a young man who wants to reconcile his bitterly divorced parents, is, as its title suggests, also about the aftermath of a war, in this case, the '50s.
The young man's parents were radicals during the Depression, and their marriage was short-circuited by World War II. His efforts to bring them together take place in the wake of McCarthyism, when all the frustrations of those earlier, cataclysmic events created a national mood of self-doubt, recrimination and hysteria.
The hollowness of the '50s causes the young man's mother, a flamboyant woman given to self-dramatization and self-indulgence, to tell her son, "Let's live for something bigger than rent and the price of hamburger."
Thinking back to her youth, she tells the 16-year-old, "I want the pain. I want that terrible closeness we had once." Her precocious son retorts, "Wasn't that a housing problem?" She cuts him short: "Why does everything seem so small and trivial now?"
These exchanges suggest the eloquence and sharp humor of Michael Weller's presumably autobiographical play. Weller is at his best when he puts the domestic struggle in the context of those still-troubling times.
The domestic story itself is less convincing because its principal combatants are all essentially selfish, cold people. It is hard to know why the son wants to bring his parents together, since his father left before he was old enough to remember them as a couple.
The mother, a wonderful comic character, is not a sympathetic one. Nor is the self-involved father. Even the son makes few emotional claims on us. We are told he's very bright and creative. But he won a prize by plagiarism and impeded his mother's own efforts at reconciliation.
The role of the mother gives Kate Nelligan a wonderful chance to display fire and passion, but the character is so histrionic it's hard to imagine her subduing her energies to creating a "home." Also, since there's a strong suggestion that her relationship to her son has an erotic undercurrent, it's hard to understand why he wants to bring back his father.
Chris Collet plays the son with a healthy touch of abrasiveness. Jeffrey De Munn makes the somewhat cryptic father likeable, even sympathetic. Of the minor characters, only Alice Playten, as the mother's confidante, makes a strong impression.
The dryness of the script is heightened by Austin Pendleton's static direction. The play is tighter than it was last spring at Second Stage, but still distant.
Michael Weller's emotionally charged and moving play, "The Spoils of War," which opened at the Music Box Theater last night, fixes its world in an interesting double focus.
First there is the family, the 16-year-old boy Martin; his mother, Elise, a glamorous, self-willed, hard-drinking radical; and her estranged husband, Martin's father, Andrew, a hard-line intellectual whose politics have become softened by success.
Then there is the time - the fuzzy '50s of Eisenhower and Sen. Joe McCarthy, a time for scoundrels and for booms, a time when the wounds of WWII and Korea had healed and the future wounds of Vietnam were not even in prospect.
Weller's play, widely felt to be autobiographical, was originally produced Off-Broadway by the Second Stage Company last May. Since that first production - where it was part of a Weller retrospective - the leading man and one of the smaller roles have been re-cast, and the set designer repalced.
The play, still directed by Austin Pendleton, has also been extensively revised and re-written. At least, so it is claimed. In fact, at least to me, the revisions did not appear nearly so far-reaching as I expected - yet they serve their turn.
Where the revision has notably succeeded, and where it had to succeed, is in placing more emphasis on Martin and his intense, pipe-dreaming efforts to reunite his parents, as well as on his relationship with his voluptuous mother and his stiff-necked father.
The ironic title not only suggests the reverberations of an America freshly at peace, but also implies the role of Martin as a disputed changeling boy in the marital war between his parents.
What Weller has made clear is that Martin never really understood either of them - creating for himself fictional parents all ready for a fictional reconciliation.
The realities always made such a rapproachement impossible, not least because the father Andrew was, and always had been, a pompous fool. Weller has sharpened up all these perceptions, and also freshly revealed Martin as being very much the son both of his mother and his father.
There have been losses in the rewrites as well as gains. Elise's adoring and adorable old Marxist friend, Emma, now seems less vividly defined, and the drifter Lew, who was originally the lover of both women, is now only specifically attached to Emma, and seems to be altogether more peripheral to the drama.
Where the play scores and scores heavily is in its depiction of a boy growing up at this specific time and place with two contrasted sets of broken parents - the parents that are real, and the parents that he has romanticized out of those realities.
While Elise now seems less casually promiscuous, her role is still flamboyantly over-written, and she still talks more like a character in a purplish-prosey novel than a person down the street, but possibly this larger-than-life woman, reeking with radical cheek, could have invented such a persona for herself.
Austin Pendleton's direction is as sensitive as before, and is particularly effective in its staging of those litmus-paper confrontations the boy arranges between himself and his parents, and finally the one between the parents themselves. He gets the tone of these emotional transactions quite exquisitely.
The multi-purpose revolving setting, now by Andrew Jackness, is a great deal less dowdy than before, and the acting is superlative.
Kate Nelligan has a handsomely prima donna role as Elise and grabs its opportunities with luscious relish. She is best at indicating the tiny kernel of fear that seems to lurk at the heart of Elise's bravado, and a sense of a woman out of step with time. Brilliant.
As the husband, Jeffrey De Munn has to shoulder the difficult task of appearing first sympathetic, and then standing revealed as a blow-hard phoney with a small heart and a tin soul. And De Munn - in one of his best performances - is unflinchingly superb.
But everyone is very good indeed. Alice Playten is as cuddly as a babushka doll as the resilient and radiant Emma. Marita Geraghty proves incisive as the aging Andrew's young love interest; and Kevin O'Rourke is oddly likable as the layabout who wanders into the play almost from the street.
The key role, for all this, is that of young Martin - both the protagonist and onlooker of the whole story. Christopher Collet already good last spring, has now matured his performance to one of great subtlety and awareness.
It is left to him to make convincing all those sudden tergiversations of mood and motive that characterize the closing scenes of the play, and also to provide some kind of full stop if not summing up to the action - and this he accomplishes with puppy nerviness and emotional acne. A fine, aching performance.
The strange thing is that after all the changes and the work, I suspect the play is still not the one Weller would have liked to have written.
The autobiographical fiction is an American tradition - and the best have an echo of truth to them that could ring round a graveyard. This tale is not quite so stark, the note of the echo is ever so slightly false.
Even with this reservation - which is really only to state the obvious. That it is not "The Glass Menagerie" or even an animal in such a zoo - it remains a touching lovely work touchingly performed.
''Why can't things be different?'' pleads Martin (Christopher Collet), the troubled 16-year-old caught in the crossfire of Michael Weller's ''Spoils of War.'' Martin is asking the question of his parents, whose divorce a decade earlier he still refuses to accept and whose reconciliation he still hopes to accomplish. The question is rhetorical, of course; things can't be different for Martin's parents now or ever. But what child of divorce ever stops asking? In Mr. Weller's climactic scene, it is harrowing to watch the cold truth at last sink in: Martin, his eyes glazed and his thin body taut with panic, stands frozen midway between his warring mother and father, paralyzed by the recognition that his lifelong pipe dream is never to be.
That moment alone would make the play at the Music Box wrenching, but Mr. Weller, whose previous works include the Vietnam-era lamentations ''Moonchildren'' and ''Loose Ends,'' has never been a writer to settle for unalloyed domestic drama. When Martin asks his parents his crucial question, his words spill well beyond his family's walls. In ''Spoils of War,'' Mr. Weller wonders if things could have been different not only for his young protagonist but also for the American generation represented by the boy's parents. Elise (Kate Nelligan) and Andrew (Jeffrey De Munn) are more than battle-scarred veterans of a marital war of silence, they are also survivors of national conflagrations: the radical movements of the Great Depression, World War II, the cold war that spawned the McCarthy witch hunts. Setting his play in New York during the materialistic and complacent Eisenhower 1950's, Mr. Weller finds in one family's disintegration a paradigm of the postwar collapse of liberal idealism.
First seen at Off Broadway's Second Stage last winter, ''Spoils of War'' arrives on Broadway with Ms. Nelligan's bravura performance intact but with substantial alterations in its text, supporting cast and physical production. Revisions were called for. Mr. Weller, always a fine writer, seemed on the verge of a major breakthrough with this work: his script had the potential to merge the lyricism of a classic memory play in the ''Glass Menagerie'' tradition with the pungent social thought that has marked all his writing, including his screenplays for Milos Forman's ''Hair'' and ''Ragtime.''
The results of the retooling are mixed. For all the changes in ''Spoils of War,'' some of them quite constructive, the overall effect remains disappointingly the same. This is without question Mr. Weller's most absorbing play, always intelligent and at times moving, but it is still too lumpy, both in the writing and in Austin Pendleton's erratic direction, to achieve the lofty theatrical stature promised by its characters and ideas.
Now, as before, ''Spoils of War'' is compulsively watchable whenever Ms. Nelligan is on stage. A voluptuous figure in scarlet - from her Rita Hayworth pile of hair to her full lips to her drop-dead high-heel shoes - this mother is clearly the kind of powerful woman whom ''people don't get over.'' She's also an original personality whose contradictory traits can't be folded into any standard characterization. Hard-drinking, much-married and sexually voracious, Elise nonetheless works selflessly at a menial job to keep Martin in a progressive boarding school. She is a romantic who yearns to write poetry and to live for ''something better than rent and the price of hamburger,'' but she is also prey to passionate excesses and irresponsible fantasies that destroy her best personal and ideological intentions.
Elise has principles in common with the disappointed 50's renegade Ms. Nelligan played in David Hare's ''Plenty'' - especially when she chastises her conformist decade for its selfishness and triviality. But Mr. Weller's play allows the actress to display far more resilience, warmth and humor. Even at her most incestuously flirtatious, Ms. Nelligan's Elise is convincingly a nurturing, self-sacrificing mother. Her generous friendship with a less glamorous comrade from the movement's salad days -played with a lovely fragility by Alice Playten - is just as credible as her childish sexual teasing of a male drifter (an affable Kevin O'Rourke). Ms. Nelligan has the role of her career here - not for nothing does Elise liken herself to Tallulah - and she is never less than riveting.
The star has also gained a true partner to play against, at least in Act II. Mr. Weller has bolstered the previously sketchy role of Martin's father. Andrew is a self-righteously lapsed leftist and delinquent parent but by no means a villain; Mr. De Munn's impressively layered performance allows us to see both how he got tangled up with Elise and why he ultimately had to leave her. Unlike so many writers of coming-of-age plays, Mr. Weller has the maturity to portray the strengths and frailties of each parent - with generosity but never to a sentimental fault.
What the playwright does not see so penetratingly is his own onstage alter ego. Though Martin finally proves a somewhat articulate spokesman for his resentments and anger, he is still too much of a cipher for too long. It's no reflection on Mr. Collet's able acting that his cute Act I scheming to reunite his parents seems juvenile, more appropriate to Hollywood-style comedies of the 50's like ''The Courtship of Eddie's Father'' or ''A Hole in the Head'' than a play of these ambitions. While we wait and wait for Martin's plan to take effect, the play lacks a center of gravity that neither parent can provide.
If Martin remains underwritten, occasional passages of ''Spoils of War,'' particularly the flourishes for Ms. Nelligan in the final scene, seem overwritten, as if the playwright were trying to inflate his generally eloquent and pointed dialogue to serve some anachronistic definition of Broadway grandeur. A greater calamity, no fault of Mr. Weller's, is the recasting of the role of the father's girlfriend, a zoo worker not much older than Martin. As played last year by Annette Bening, the character was a disarmingly direct oddball who further compounded the familial and sexual tensions of the play. In the synthetic performance of Marita Geraghty, she comes across as irritatingly intrusive, and her once-provocative scenes with Martin bog down both acts.
In addition to that unfortunate blot on his otherwise sensitive work with his cast, Mr. Pendleton again demonstrates, albeit on a larger scale and with a different designer than at the Second Stage, that he pays scant attention to the visual aspects of directing. Andrew Jackness's settings, a stylistically unfocused mishmash of campy period furniture and abstract urbanscapes, are gloomy and cluttered. A turntable notwithstanding, Mr. Pendleton stages every scene with the same static symmetry, as if the play's every incident deserved the same theatrical weight.
That stasis, thankfully, is often overcome by Mr. Weller, Ms. Nelligan and Mr. De Munn. The reunion in which Elise and Andrew briefly resurrect the laughter and affection of their dead bond, then abruptly erupt once more in the rage that smashed it, is an exceptionally truthful, compact and upsetting scene from a marriage. As his young protagonist must learn, Mr. Weller entertains few illusions that domestic history, private or public, can be rewritten or that its truces can be more than short-lived. While ''Spoils of War'' might have brought home its wars more fully, the wounds it rips open are too many, too real and too bloody not to hurt.