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Gurney kicks up his heels in new comedy. `The Perfect Party' arrives with `Lonely Street' and `Daughters'

The Perfect Party Comedy by A. R. Gurney Jr. Directed by John Tillinger. ``The Perfect Party'' is A. R. Gurney Jr.'s most antic comedy to date. In his eight previous full-length plays, Mr. Gurney toed a more or less formal line. In the new piece at Playwrights Horizons, he kicks up his heels, verbally speaking, and trips the light fantastic, leading his characters a merry dance through the maze of contemporary middle-class Americana.

Part allegory, part satirical make-believe, ``The Perfect Party'' describes itself succinctly. It is about Tony (John Cunningham), a middle-aged professor of American history and literature somewhere outside New York. Tony has chucked his job in a bid for fame and consultancy status as host of the perfect party. To chronicle the event, he has invited Lois (Charlotte Moore), a columnist on ``a major New York newspaper.'' In the first of Gurney's witty parodies, glossy Lois grills the earnest host to determine whether his provincial bash promises to be material for a ``perfect review.''

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Their verbal fencing is interrupted by Tony's distraught wife, Sally (Debra Mooney). Left alone with Lois, Sally confides her misgivings and apprehensions. Next on the scene are Jewish neighbors Wes and Wilma (David Margulies and Kate McGregor-Stewart), still in deshabille and suddenly reluctant to accept Tony's invitation. From this point the recipe is deceptively simple: add complications and stir.

With revelries underway just beyond Tony's study (well appointed by designer Steven Rubin), Gurney distracts the spectator with dizzy contretemps and plot gambits. They involve Tony's transforming himself into a wickedly twisted Germanic twin brother named ``Tod'' (which he explains means ``Death''), to whose crude advances Lois succumbs.

``The Perfect Party'' spoofs social amenities and inanities, critics and academics, urban and suburban provincials, and the jargons of the day (expletives not deleted). For embellishments, there is a Bartlett's bouquet of literary references from the Greeks to Moli`ere, from Melville to Oscar Wilde. The perfect party itself becomes a metaphor for the American success mania, the drive for perfection at any price.

If the upbeat finale is something of a letdown, only a jaded columnist (or critic) could resist Gurney's party. Under John Tillinger's devilishly clever direction, the script is performed to perfection by (in alphabetical order) Cunningham, Margulies, McGregor-Stewart, Mooney, and Moore. Jane Greenwood created the costumes and Dan Kotlowitz designed the lighting. So Long on Lonely Street Comedy by Sandra Deer. Directed by Kent Stephens.

``So Long on Lonely Street'' is the latest contribution of the regional professional theater to the Broadway scene. Sandra Deer's comedy about a family of contending Southerners originated with Atlanta's Alliance Theatre Company, which has been prominently associated with its development.

Miss Deer has sought conscientiously to handle, in comic terms, such basic human issues as the yearning for individual identity, upright dealing vs. chicanery, and the claiming (or reclaiming) of a lost heritage.

The occasion of the new play at the Jack Lawrence Theatre is the death of Aunt Pearl Vaughnum, as unmourned as she was unloved. Her funeral nevertheless reunites some ill-assorted relatives at Honeysuckle Hill, the run-down Vaughnum homestead ``a few miles outside a small Southern town.'' Among those on hand for the obsequies are long-absent Raymond Brown (Ray Dooley), a New York soap-opera actor, and his raffish twin sister Ruth (Pat Nesbit), a very minor poet.

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Through a succession of revelations, Miss Deer recounts the ways in which the sins of the fathers (notably ``Big Jack'' Vaughnum) have been visited on the children. Besides Ruth and Raymond, events at Honeysuckle Hill directly affect Annabel Lee, a mixed-race domestic whose uncertain status as an illegitimate Vaughnum offspring occupies a central position in the complex plotting. The emergence of an incestuous relationship between Ruth and Raymond introduces a repellent note into the otherwise happy ending.

In certain ways ``So Long on Lonely Street'' recalls the melodramatics of a Lillian Hellman and the bizarre humor of a Beth Henley. But Miss Deer has yet to find her own voice. Her old-fashioned play relies too heavily on clich'e and caricature. Among the theatrical Dixie stereotypes are greedy, conniving cousin King Vaughnum III (Stephen Root), his pregnant, nitwit wife Clarice (Jane Murray), and Bobby Stack (Fritz Sperberg), the local lawyer engaged to unsnarl the legal problems inherent in ``Big Jack'' Vaughnum's will.

Lizan Mitchell gives a humorous and sometimes poignant portrayal of the frail, spunky, slightly addled Annabel Lee. Under the indulgent direction of Kent Stephens, Miss Mitchell and her fellow players fulfill the demands of the script. The faded homestead setting was designed by Mark Morton, with lighting by Allen Lee Hughes and costumes by Jane Greenwood. While ``So Long on Lonely Street'' may not advance the claim that regional playmaking offers the present best hope of the American theater, the first-night audience found Miss Deer's comedy irresistible. Daughters Play by John Morgan Evans. Directed by John Henry Davis.

The most cheerful feature of ``Daughters'' is designer Kevin Rupnik's model kitchen setting. It could win a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. So, no doubt, could the manicotti and lasagna prepared and served up by Mom DiAngelo (Bette Henrize) in the course of the new genre play at the Westside Arts Theatre (Upstairs).

John Morgan Evans (n'e Apicella) has written a serio-comic study of disquiet and desperation among the distaff members of a Brooklyn family of Italian-Americans. The only male on the premises is Mom's offstage husband, whose serious ailment becomes a matter of dissension over what treatment he should receive.

Most of the confrontations involve unstable Tessie (Marcia Rodd), whose discovery of her husband's infidelity almost drives her to a renewed mental breakdown. Tessie's state is not improved when she learns that 17-year-old daughter Cetta (Marisa Tomei) has decided on a career instead of the marriage that had been planned.

Miss Rodd gives an emotionally charged performance as Tessie and is well matched by Miss Tomei's Cetta in the mother-daughter clashes. The good cast directed by John Henry Davis includes Mary Testa as Tessie's more prosperous sister and Miriam Phillips as silent, nonagenarian Grandma, a serene presence until her death between the acts. While respecting Mr. Evans's humane concern for these voluble Brooklynites, the spectator may run out of interest before the DiAngelo womenfolk have run out of problems. The production was lighted by F. Mitchell Dana and costumed by Donna Zakowska.

Moving days. The critically applauded Manhattan Theatre Club revival of Joe Orton's ``Loot'' has moved from the MTC playhouse at City Center to Broadway's Music Box Theatre. On April 29, John Guare's equally well received ``The House of Blue Leaves'' transfers upstairs from the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater to the Vivian Beaumont at Lincoln Center. ``The Flying Karamazov Brothers'' will remain at the Beaumont through April 20. Three days later, they will betake themselves, along with their ``Juggling and Cheap Theatrics,'' to the Newhouse. --30--{et

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