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`Educating Rita' back on stage, along with `Little Murders'. Production mounted in Chicago is given Off Broadway staging

Educating Rita Play by Willy Russell. Directed by Jeff Perry. ``Educating Rita'' has arrived at Off Broadway's Westside Arts Theatre by a circuitous route that began when the ``Pygmalion''-esque comedy became a London hit in the early 1980s. The successful film version starred Michael Caine and Julie Walters. New York playgoers are making Rita's acquaintance in a production of the Willy Russell original mounted by Chicago's obliging Steppenwolf Theatre Company.

The encounter amid the urban groves of academe occurs in a first-floor room at an open university in the north of England. Rita (Laurie Metcalf), a rambunctious hairdresser, turns up to be tutored by a rumpled alcoholic named Frank (Austin Pendleton). At the outset of the weekly coaching sessions for an important exam, Rita appears to have little more going for her than a yearning for learning and a determination to liberate herself from the confines of her working-class background.

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When instructor Frank asks Rita for an essay on ``Peer Gynt,'' she writes simply: ``Do it on the radio.'' She considers Lady Macbeth ``a cow.'' Before long, however, the avid education consumer is attending plays, changing jobs, engaging in dialogues, and tossing off opinions about D.H. Lawrence, E.M. Forster, Harold Robbins, and even William Blake. At the same time, she is developing an academic conformity that concerns Frank and an independence that sends him into jealous sulks. Mr. Russell resolves the impasse amusingly enough without resorting to a pat conclusion.

Under Jeff Perry's direction, Mr. Pendleton and Miss Metcalf conduct the verbal duels with a relish for their comic rate of exchange and a respect for the underlying human drives of the situation. Notwithstanding that neither actor has solved the problem of accent, ``Educating Rita'' offers both entertainment and instructional rewards for the spectator. As designed and lighted by Kevin Rigdon, Frank's redoubt is a model of untidiness. The Erin Quigley costumes - particularly for Rita - illustrate how trendiness repeats itself. Once more, the Steppenwolf Chicagoans have enlivened the New York theater scene. Little Murders Comedy by Jules Feiffer. Directed by John Tillinger.

If poets are indeed (as Shelley said) ``the unacknowledged legislators of the world,'' cartoonists are its acknowledged court jesters. And none more so than Jules Feiffer, whose expanding oeuvre includes eight plays, two novels, one cartoon novel, four screenplays, and 13 volumes of cartoons. A 1986 Pulitzer Prize winner for editorial cartooning, Mr. Feiffer made his momentarily disastrous playwriting debut in 1967 with ``Little Murders.'' It closed after seven Broadway performances but became an Off Broadway hit two seasons later and was filmed by Hollywood.

Time may have distanced us from the immediate objects of Feiffer's comic scorn, but the sharp revival at the Second Stage demonstrates that ``Little Murders'' hasn't lost a continuing basic relevance. The characters of the outrageous sitcomic strip include Carol Newquist (MacIntyre Dixon), an insecurely fractious paterfamilias; his wife Marjorie (Frances Sternhagen), a fluttery but determined candidate for homemakers anonymous; macho daughter Patsy (Christine Lahti); and repulsively effeminate son Kenny (Fisher Stevens). Into this horrible household comes Patsy's latest boyfriend Alfred (Graham Beckel), a hulking but docile photographer and self-admitted apathist-nihilist-atheist.

The Patsy-Alfred nuptials are a grotesque nightmare of Feiffer gags and broad lampoons. The ceremonies begin with a noodle-headed ``sermon'' by a hippie pastor (Mike Nussbaum) and climax with Patsy's mysterious death by homicide - the first of the ``little murders'' of the play's title. Thereafter, the Newquist household becomes an armed fortress, with a newly aggressive Alfred in unquestioned command.

Some of the horrors and lunacies lampooned by Feiffer have receded into history or lost their shock effect since 1970. But it can be argued that such digressions from the social and moral norm have been succeeded by more sinister, high-echelon forms of antisocial behavior. In any case, ``Little Murders'' retains enough lethal comedy and continuing relevance to justify the Second Stage revival of Feiffer's first play. It is punchy, raunchy, and satirically durable.

The performance staged by John Tillinger thrives on the kind of irrational rationality in which the actors take the most outrageous nonsense in deadpan stride. Posted notices at the theater entrances warn spectators of blank cartridges being fired in the course of the play. By contrast, the cast insures that Feiffer's comic ammunition is loaded. Designer Andrew Jackness has housed the action in an impersonally standard New York apartment. The revival was lighted by Natasha Katz and costumed by Candice Donnelly. Gary Harris devised the indispensable big-city sound effects.

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`Pygmalion' postscript

My review of ``Pygmalion'' (April 29) attributed the ending of the play at the Plymouth Theatre to Peter O'Toole and director Val May. A letter from Montgomery Davis, artistic director of Milwaukee's Chamber Theatre, makes the following corrective point: ``In the Penguin edition, which is called the `definitive' edition and contains the additional material for the Pascal film, the laughing ending is the one that stands and I think that is the one Shaw intended as the right one.'' My thanks to Mr. Davis, whose theater is about to launch its fifth annual Shaw festival (including ``Pygmalion''), and my apologies to Mr. O'Toole, Mr. May, and G.B.S.

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