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Virginia Woolf -- and an old-fashioned family comedy

Virginia Play by Edna O'Brien, based on the writings of Virginia and Leonard Woolf. Directed by David Leveaux. Like ``Tom and Viv,'' its co-tenant at the Public Theater, ``Virginia'' takes a retrospective look at the Bloomsbury literary scene. A trio of notables comes alive in the sensitively attuned performance of Edna O'Brien's dramatic essay at the Public/Newman. The result is something more than a curio, something less than a fully realized play.

This skillfully assembled collage of extracts from the writings of Virginia and Leonard Woolf may mean more to the admirers of the Woolfs and V. Sackville-West than to a larger, uninitiated public. Indeed, some of the shortcomings of ``Virginia'' are akin to those of ``Tom and Viv,'' Michael Hastings's play about T. S. Eliot and his first wife. Yet on its own terms, ``Virginia'' can win its way with a sympathetic spectator. It is witty, literate, and sometimes moving.

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The play, whose time span runs fom 1882 to 1942, begins with an extended monologue, brilliantly delivered by Kate Nelligan in the title role. The novelist recalls much of her past, including the emotionally disturbing events of her girlhood and young womanhood. ``No wonder I had tantrums and fidgets,'' she observes. The end of the period was typified by coming-out parties attended by ``young men from the Foreign Office who had never heard of Plato but could dance.''

The two important secondary figures in ``Virginia'' are Leonard Woolf (Kenneth Welsh) and author Victoria (Vita) Sackville-West (Patricia Elliott). Ex-civil servant, historian, and committed socialist, Woolf emerges as the stabilizing force in Virginia's intense, sometimes wayward life. In one of the play's few dramatic confrontations, Leonard warns Vita that his wife's emotional health may suffer seriously from the strain placed upon it by her infatuation with her fellow novelist. Although no such consequence occurs, Virginia's suicide (at 59) is explained by her fear of a return of an earlier breakdown.

``Virginia'' deals passingly with such famed contemporaries as Lytton Strachey (whom she slyly mimics) and Clive Bell, her brother-in-law, and other Bloomsbury celebrities with whose names the text is sprinkled. Along the way, there is the usual amount of literary sniping and backbiting. For a picturesque prop touch, designer Santo Loquasto introduces a little hand press that stands in for the Hogarth Press, the Woolfs' hobby that became a publishing legend.

As directed with meticulous regard by David Leveaux, Miss Nelligan's Virginia is a mixture of mercurial moods -- of vulnerability, candor, and humor. Beyond this, the actress explores the mysterious inner sensibilities that the playwright must leave to the player's art. Mr. Welsh doubles impressively as the austere, dominating philosopher, Sir Leslie Stephen (Virginia's father), and as the gentle classicist who became her partner in a strange but mutually rewarding marriage. Miss Elliott makes an almost voluptuous Vita. Although she tells Virginia that she dressed like a man, Miss Elliott's Vita epitomizes dashing chic, particularly as coutured by Mr. Loquasto.

Whether borrowed or invented, the language of ``Virginia'' is choice. The beautiful delivery of Miss O'Brien's speeches makes listening a pleasure, compensating somewhat for the play's rather placid nature and lack of dramatic thrust. The nonrealistic Loquasto settings have been effulgently lighted by Arden Fingerhut. The Octette Bridge Club Play by P. J. Barry. Starring Gisela Caldwell, Peggy Cass, Lois de Banzie, Elizabeth Franz, Bette Henritze, Elizabeth Huddle, Nancy Marchand, Anne Pitoniak. Directed by Tom Moore.

A well-disposed preview audience laughed and applauded and shed a tear or two over ``The Octette Bridge Club,'' at the Music Box. P. J. Barry has written a corny, old-fashioned family comedy about the changing lives and times of eight Rhode Island sisters who meet every other Friday night for bridge, gossip, small talk, and family jokes. The play opens in 1934, when they are being photographed for the Providence Journal on the third anniversary of their get-togethers. It ends on the night before Halloween in wartime 1944. The years and the intermission have brought their quota of changes.

The sisters range from the eldest, strait-laced Martha (Ann Pitoniak), to the baby of the lot, unhappily married Betsy (Gisela Caldwell), whose mental troubles lead to temporary institutionalization. The octet also includes sweet-tempered spinster Mary (Bette Henritze), wisecracking Connie (Nancy Marchand), and cutup Lil (Peggy Cass). Elizabeth Franz, Lois de Banzie, and Elizabeth Huddle complete the Donavan sisterhood.

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Director Tom Moore and his accomplished actresses create as believable a group of small-town Americans as ever posed for a Sunday rotagravure section. Mr. Barry's folksy comic dialogue is given its due, and even the play's most serious crisis is resolved. But time and TV sitcoms have overtaken modest genre comedies like ``The Octette Bridge Club.'' The Halloween charade of Act II adds some fun by allowing the actresses to engage in mildly antic masquerades. But by this time, the material is running thin.

John Lee Beatty has designed the provincial living rooms in which the comedy takes place, with costumes by Carrie Robbins and lighting by Roger Morgan. Tinny sound-track amplifications of period pop tunes (``All of Me,'' ``Harvest Moon,'' ``Life Is Just a Bowl of Cherries,'' etc.) provide the musical overtures which, if nothing else, bring back a memory or two. As one young man remarked to his girl on leaving the Music Box, ``Your parents would like this.'' Perhaps.

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