THE FIERY FURNACE Play by Timothy Mason. At the Circle Repertory Company.
MARRIAGE PLAY Play by Edward Albee. At the Signature Theatre Company through Oct. 31.
THERE aren't enough original plays on Broadway anymore, so the luminous Julie Harris, one of the premier stage actresses of our time, is appearing Off Broadway in the Circle Repertory production of Timothy Mason's ``The Fiery Furnace.''
This play, set in the Midwest during the 1950s, is so old-fashioned in tone and content that it could have come from the Broadway of decades ago.
Harris plays Eunice, a Wisconsin housewife and mother so desperate to leave her failed marriage that when her daughter Faith (Ashley Gardner) leaves for college in the opening scene, she attempts to sneak away with her.
This plan is thwarted by the daughter's not unreasonable desire to make her way alone, so Eunice stays where she is, and as the play unfolds - it spans a period of 13 years - we see that her daughters' lives do not fare much better. Faith winds up marrying a lawyer (Zach Grenier) whom she does not love but who nonetheless offers security.
Charity is married to Jerry (William Fichtner), who we soon learn is an abusive alcoholic. (A baby, Hope, was lost in childbirth - these names are a good clue to the schematic nature of the play).
The drama starts out pleasantly enough, but as the years unfold (and we feel every one of them) the events turn melodramatic. Eunice's tyrant husband dies in an upstairs bedroom, and Charity makes a desperate attempt to flee from her husband.
Although there are patches of good writing, both in the comic and dramatic modes, the play doesn't hang together, short of its conception of women as victims.
The acting is fine by all concerned: Susan Batten, initially irritating as the flighty Charity, develops a portrait of haunting desperation, and it's wonderful to see Harris onstage again. But ``The Fiery Furnace'' serves neither her nor the audience well.
AT the beginning of Edward Albee's new one-act drama, ``Marriage Play,'' a middle-aged husband, Jack, walks into the living room of his suburban home, where his wife is reading, and matter-of-factly announces, ``I'm leaving you.''
From this legendary playwright, we expect the announcement to produce domestic fireworks on the order of his classic ``Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?'' No such luck.
The wife, Gillian, doesn't bat an eyelash. Jack, infuriated, walks out in order to enter and make his statement again. And again.
What follows is a lengthy, absurdist dialogue about the nature of their relationship which, for all its quiet reasonableness, barely makes sense. Back and forth the conversation goes, for 75 minutes, with little or no impact.
One interesting touch is the reading of a diary that Gillian has kept for the duration of their marriage, a diary that concentrates solely on the couple's sex life, with comments after each experience and appropriate ratings.
Although as far as Jack is concerned the marriage is over, he cannot resist hearing several passages read aloud, and he is quite upset over his wife's poor ratings.
As the couple, Tom Klunis and Kathleen Butler offer direct, unmannered performances that give the work a certain reality, but considering the lackadaisical nature of the proceedings, perhaps some more stylization was in order.
The Signature Theatre Company, a tiny Off Off Broadway company, has admirably set for itself the task of devoting each season to a worthy playwright.
This year, besides ``Marriage Play,'' they will also present the New York premieres of other Albee works, as well as revivals of several of his one-acts.
Considering how rarely Albee's plays have been presented in New York in recent years, the company is to be commended.