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`Precious Sons' -- a downbeat comedy

Precious Sons Comedy by George Furth. Directed by Norman Ren'e. Starring Ed Harris, Judith Ivey. ``Precious Sons,'' at the Longacre Theatre, is a raucous but ultimately downbeat version of those family comedies in which father thinks he knows best, while mother knows she knows better.

In a work with hints of personal history, playwright George Furth has turned back the calendar to June 3, 1949. The play records the crucial graduation-day events in the lives of a South Side Chicago household.

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At issue between Fred and Bea Small are the educational futures of 18-year-old Art and 14-year-old Freddy, the ``precious sons'' of the biblically inspired title.

Studious Freddy and athletic Art have won scholarships to further the education on which Fred Small (Ed Harris) has set his heart.

Vulgar roughneck though he is, Fred recognizes education as their passport from the unrewarding jobs to which his own lack of schooling has condemned him. Tough-minded Bea (Judith Ivey) has other ideas for Freddy, who is already making his way as a juvenile actor. Without telling her husband, Bea signs a contract for the younger son to go to New York to rehearse for a road company of ``A Streetcar Named Desire.''

Bea's wiles (and a couple of second-act plot surprises by Mr. Furth) shatter Fred's hopes for his boys and even for himself.

Meanwhile, the affectionate family bickering and coarse raillery that comprise the comedy of ``Precious Sons'' are exploding into fierce, bitter, and sometimes violent confrontations.

Having devised their escapes for Art and Freddy, Furth leaves the forlorn parents to seek at least momentary consolation in a slow dance.

The performance staged by Norman Ren'e exploits the comic possibilites of ``Precious Sons'' and does what it can to win the spectator's sympathy for the embattled Fred and Bea.

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Mr. Harris, who starred in Sam Shepard's ``Fool for Love'' and in several important films, makes his Broadway debut with a vigorous and perceptive performance as the bullheaded, insecure, and finally defeated Fred.

As rough-tongued Bea, Miss Ivey waddles comically about the stage and delivers clich'es as if they were pearls of instant wisdom.

Anthony Rapp is particularly impressive as the sensitive, quietly intelligent Freddy. William O'Leary as Art and Anne Marie Bobby as his bubbleheaded girlfriend complete the cast for this sometimes affecting but less than wholly winning domestic comedy.

The Chicago setting was designed by Andrew Jackness, with lighting by Richard Nelson and costumes by Joseph G. Aulisi. Elisabeth Welch: Time to Start Living Musical entertainment starring Miss Welch. Peter Howard, musical director.

One of the rare treats of the season is taking place at the Lucille Lortel Theatre. ``Elisabeth Welch: Time to Start Living'' identifies the star and the mood of this special occasion.

Miss Welch, who enchanted Broadway playgoers in the short-lived ``Jerome Kern Goes to Hollywood,'' is favoring New Yorkers with a beguiling one-woman entertainment.

It's a model of vocalism `a la mode.

Opening her recital with Stephen Schwartz's blitheful ``No Time at All'' (from ``Pippin''), Miss Welch ranges through a repertoire of some 20 familiar and lesser known ditties.

The catalog includes Cole Porter, Carmichael/Washington, Rodgers/Hart, the Gershwins, Kern/Harbach, and Noel Coward.

Besides Porter's ``Solomon,'' a Welch comic signature since she introduced it 53 years ago in London, the septuagenarian star also performs his ``Love for Sale,'' ``Miss Otis Regrets,'' and ``Experiment.''

For a Gallic touch, the black American internationalist offers ``La Vie en Rose'' in French.

As a singer, Miss Welch displays that meticulous respect for words and music that must gladden the hearts of lyricists and composers. As raconteur, she reminisces with mellow vivacity.

This enchanted evening is greatly enhanced by the caressing accompaniments of pianist-conductor Peter Howard, bassist Peter Barshay, and percussionist Steve Singer.

The show is currently scheduled to run through April 13, which is far too short a stay for so infrequent a visitor.

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