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Potent performances mark revival of bleak, sometimes uproarious tragicomedy

A Day in the Death of Joe Egg Play by Peter Nichols. Starring Jim Dale, Stockard Channing. Directed by Arvin Brown. Bri (short for Brian) is ``hardly ever at rest, acts being maladroit but the act is skillful. Clowning may give way to ineffectual hectoring and then self-piteous gloom.'' Thus does British playwright Peter Nichols describe the anti-hero of ``A Day in the Death of Joe Egg.'' The dark, bleak, sometimes uproarious tragicomedy is being revived at the Haft Theater for the first time since its New York premi`ere in 1968.

The Roundabout Theatre Company production staged by Arvin Brown responds to the comic and emotional intensity of Mr. Nichols's quirky treatment of a painful subject. Schoolteacher Bri and wife, Sheila, (Jim Dale and Stockard Channing) have devised a kind of make-believe gamesmanship as a way of dealing with their seriously brain-damaged 12-year-old daughter.

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Bri in particular fights depression and desperation with irrepressible antics, impersonations, and practical jokes. Mr. Dale gives a bravura performance in the role. Miss Channing's Valerie is almost always a match for her husband's moods. She is humorous, touching, vulnerable and, in the end, the stronger of the two. The good Roundabout cast is completed by Tenney Walsh as Joe, Gary Waldhorn as a bellowing would-be do-gooder, Joanna Gleason as the do-gooder's complacent wife, and Margaret Hilton as Bri's caricatured mother. Mr. Nichols adopts the device of having each of the characters address the audience directly from time to time. The revival runs through Jan. 27.

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