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One-act plays: minor key. "Knuckle": socially conscious mock thriller

'The One-Act Play Festival', "Stops Along the Way" by Jeffrey Sweet, directed by Kevin Conway. "In Fireworks Lie Secret Codes," written and directed by John Guare. "Vivien," by Percy Granger, directed by Mr. Conway.

The Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center has reopened with a one-act play festival under the artistic direction of Edward Albee. Such a program acquaints theatergoers with an infrequently encountered dramatic form and gives an acting ensemble the opportunity -- as in this case -- to demonstrate its versatility. As far as the trio of openers is concerned, the mood is predominantly minor key and, except for the concluding playlet, the content is slight. These chamber works for the stage concern the nature of changing relationships and the frequently oblique manner in which human vulnerability shows itself.

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Percy Granger's "Vivien," the final item in the current group, begins with the arrival of a stage and TV director named Paul (James Woods) at a mental institution to visit the father (Michael Egan) he has not seen since childhood. Vivien, the parent, initially refuses to concede that Paul is his son. Paul's emotional balancing act as he strives to win Vivien's confidence, and Vivien's mixture of perception and irrationality, gradually enlist the spectator's sympathetic concern for two men caught in a bleak and awkward encounter.

Under Kevin Conway's direction, the performance by the Messrs. Woods and Egan is a model of mutually supportive playing. As a result, each incident in Paul's partially successful struggle to make filial contact with the unstable older man extends the area of our understanding. Paul, for whom life has been a series of trade-offs, has made at least a brief breakthrough. "Vivien" is a touching work.

In the opener, "Stops Along the Way," Jeffrey Sweet observes the end of a brief love affair. The final stages of the illicit relationship are played out in a series of brief wayside scenes as Larry (Graham Beckel), the defecting partner, drives Donna (Kathleen Widdoes) from Ohio to her home and husband in Baltimore. As portrayed by the lovely and consummately feminine Miss Widdoes, the depth of Donna's feeling is so genuine and unqualified that Mr. Beckel is hard put to it to make Larry seem anything less than a callous trifler.

John Guare's "In Fireworks Lie Secret Codes" is an artificial trifle about a group of friends who are watching a Macy's fireworks display from a Manhattan penthouse terrace. By designating his characters numbers 1, 2, 3, etc., author-director Ware accentuates the anonymity of the individual even in the upper reachs of urban affluence with all of its purchasable pleasures.

Between ecstatic responses to the pyrotechnics, Mr. Guare's penthouse sophisticates regale each other with anecdotes and, in some cases, reveal the fissures in a facade of bonhommie. The melancholy and disenchanting fact is that, like the short-lived fireworks, the party's over. The glib urbanities are played with grace and fervor by all of the previously mentioned actor plus William Newman and Barbara Andres.

John Wright Stevens the conveniently alterable settings, with costumes by David Murin and lighting by Marc B. Weiss. 'Knuckle'

Play by David Hare. Directed by Geoffrey Sherman.

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"Knuckle" mixes the acidulous rhetoric of Britain's midcentury angry youngmen have occasional lapses into the lingo of the all-American private eye to create a kind of hybrid whodunit. Trench-coated arms merchant Curly Delafield (Daniel Gerroll) returns to his native Guildford, Surrey, to prove the mysterious disappearance of his sister. Curley's first stop is the Shadow of the Moon Club , whose beauteous proprietor, Jenny (Fran Bill), shared an apartment with the vanished girl.

Curly also visits his father (Gwyllum Evans) and recurrently encounters a blandly sinister American journalist (Peter Jolly), both of whom more than they are willing to admit. Although a gun and a knife are brandished in the course of the action, verbal weaponry counts most with Mr. Hare. The author has seen to it that his characters are well armed with words for any confrontation. Along with his plot ploys and sardonic humor, Mr. Hare offers socially conscious comments on such familiar topics as predatory capitalism, the growth of violence , and the proclivity of hard-boiled anti- heroes to compromise with the system. Some of the jokes will be lost on Americans unfamiliar with the comic possibilities of places like Surbiton and Eastbourne. The mock thriller is well acted under Geoffrey Sherman's direction by a cast that includes Alice Drummond as a Scots housekeeper. Set and lighting designer Paul Wonsek has managed to squeeze three main locales onto the small Hudson Guild Theater stage without overcrowding it. Denise Romano designed the costumes.

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