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Little Murders and 1776

at the Circle-in-the-Square and 46th St. Theates, New York

By Frank Rich

BROADWAY is something of a graveyard this time of year. It is the end of the theatrical season, and darkened marquees around Times Square herald shows that have bitten the dust almost immediately after their openings.

Two of the biggest hits of this season, the off Broadway play Little Murders and the Broadway musical 1776 looked ready to be counted among the losers before they opened. The former had already failed once in New York (on Broadway in 1967, when it flopped in seven performances); the latter got mediocre reviews during its road tryout, had no big names among its cast or credits, and opened in New York to almost no advance ticket sales.

Little Murders, which is the work of cartoonist Jules Feiffer, is comedy drenched in blood. When I saw the original production, I loved it. But now I realized that it had to fail. It was too early--before public opinion revolted against the stupidity of Vietnam, before two back-to-back assassinations taught us the real meaning of murder.

The play is the story of a hyperbolically typical middle-class New York family that has seen all its time-honored moral standards eroded by the endless stream of "little murders" (snipings in the street, air pollution, obscene phone calls, power failures) that make up that existence that passes for life in the sixties. The father, Carol Newquist (played by Vincent Gardenia), asserts his masculinity by claiming to be able to spot fags "a mile away"--yet is paranoid about his first name and fails to notice that his own son is a raving queer. His daughter, Patsy (Carole Shelly), has ten people working under her; she is so successful that she cannot find any man who can dominate her.

The first act climaxes in Patsy's marriage to Alfred (Fred Willard), a photographer who dropped out of life completely after he discovered that his successful career as a photographer continued to flourish even after he started taking pictures of (literally) shit. The two are married in a wedding ceremony conducted by the reverend of the First Existential Church (Motto: "Christ died for our sins. Dare we make his martyrdom meaningless by not committing them?"), who defines honor to the bride as "not cutting (your husband's balls off."

Patsy is assassinated through the living room window at the beginning of the second act, and the rest of the play concerns the characters' attempts to give their world of murder some shape, some meaning. Alfred feels that the key to all is the "free floating constellation of dots" that makes up a newspaper photo. Carol decides, "We need a army!. . . An electrically charged fence. TV cameras in every room. . . . A return to common sense. . . . lobotomies for anyone who earns less than ten thousand a year Freedom!" But ultimately the family discovers that the only sanity left to them is sticking a rifle out their apartment window and joining in the blood bath. Director Alan Arkin has staged all this with the frenzy and craziness we associate with Feiffer's art work, and his cast is perfect--daffy and ludicrous, with enough of a foothold in reality to render the whole thing at once hilarious and frightening.

LIKE Little Murders, 1776 has come at just the right time to make a go of it. This musical about the writing of the Declaration of Independence is perfect for those who, unlike Feiffer's audiences, want to have faith restored in those good old American virtues that made this country great. Unfortunately, that's about all anyone could like about 1776, which is sort of an extra-large Hallmark Hall of Fame littered with a few drab songs and some jokes Ben Franklin tells about Thomas Jefferson's six life. Really, the best that can be said about this musical (written by Peter Stone) is that the flag-waving is kept to a minimum and the cast is, sometimes, inoffensive. While 1776 will run for years, I think it is Mr. Feiffer who is on the right track. Maybe we should forget about all those silly patriots, who, in compromising on the slavery issue, started the mess that led to all out "little murders."

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