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Dysfunctional Families Abound In Dramas On and Off Broadway

`Any Given Day' and `Loman Family Picnic' address unresolved relationships

ANY GIVEN DAY Drama by Frank Gilroy. Starring Sada Thompson. At the Longacre Theatre.

THE LOMAN FAMILY PICNIC Play by Donald Margulies. Starring Peter Friedman and Christine Baranski. Presented by the Manhattan

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Theatre Club at City Center.

THE family drama has been a staple of the American theater for eons, and current productions of two new plays serve as a dramatic illustration of how flexible the concept can be.

Frank Gilroy's ``Any Given Day,'' a ``prequel'' to his Pulitzer-Prize winning ``The Subject Was Roses,'' has arrived on Broadway as an almost defiant throwback to the family dramas of yore. And Donald Margulies's ``The Loman Family Picnic,'' presented by the Manhattan Theatre Club at City Center, demonstrates that the concept can survive modernist deconstruction and absurdism.

``Any Given Day,'' which is set in the 1940s and involves several of the characters who become more prominent in ``The Subject Was Roses,'' is a stark and drab example of the naturalistic style that predominated decades ago. It concerns the emotional travails suffered by the Benti family living on the Grand Concourse in the Bronx.

The family is presided over by matriarch Mrs. Benti (Sada Thompson) and includes her children. Divorced daughter Carmen (played by Andrea Marcovicci) has a mentally retarded and physically disabled son named Willis (Justin Kirk), and she must deal with her emotionally repressed fiance (Andrew Robinson). Mrs. Benti's daughter Nettie (Lisa Eichorn), whose husband John (Victor Slezak) is having an affair with Carmen, is seeing her son Timmy (Gabriel Olds) off to war. And son Eddie (Peter Frechette), is suffering from tuberculosis and faces the prospect of a sanitorium stay.

Watching over this troubled group is family friend, Doctor Goldman (Stephen Pearlman), who clearly has his hands full.

As can be imagined, there is enough material here for several plays, what with Willis babbling incoherently in his wheelchair, Carmen and her fiance fighting over what will become of him, John and Carmen stealing kisses when they are alone, and Eddie having terrible coughing fits. The steely Mrs. Benti, whose unhappy demeanor seems perfectly appropriate, apparently also has psychic powers and the ability to read tea leaves - with this family, a helpful trait.

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This is the kind of earnest, plodding drama in which accusations are hurled back and forth, there are recriminations for offenses committed years before, and every portentous pause has deep meaning. Unleavened by humor and overpopulated by the walking wounded, the play is as oppressive and claustrophobic as the overstuffed apartment.

Paul Benedict's overemphatic direction also scores no marks for subtlety. The performers do what they can with the material. Thompson, who glowers throughout the play, makes us long for material in which she can convey more than one emo`Ttion.

THE Loman Family Picnic,'' on the other hand, takes the family drama genre and turns it on its head.

This family lives in Brooklyn, Coney Island circa 1965 to be exact, and consists of husband and wife Herbie (played by Peter Friedman) and Doris (Christine Baranski), and their young sons Stewie (Harry Barandes), about to be bar-mitzvahed, and Mitchell (Jonathan Kaplan).

The title refers to a musical adaptation of Arthur Miller's ``Death of a Salesman,'' aptly titled ``Willie!'' that Mitchell is in the process of writing.

Miller's drama was obviously an inspiration for playwright Margulies, for this play is also an autobiographical tale of a dysfunctional Jewish family presided over by a frustrated salesman, although in this case the father sells lighting fixtures.

But where Miller's play is poetic realism, Margulies's is an extended sketch in which there are numerous surrealistic fantasies as the family members struggle to break free from the confines of their emotionally stunted relationships.

Only Stewie, who is primarily concerned with how much money he will clear from his bar-mitzvah, is exempt. But in a harrowing and realistic scene that takes place after the party, he, too, learns that dreams don't always come true.

Baranski, playing a prototypical Jewish housewife and mother, has the comic flair and outrageous spiritedness to fully convince us of the wasted passion in her life. Gleeful over the fact that she can fit into her wedding dress 18 years later (she has cut it up for a Halloween costume), she is simultaneously tragic and uproarious as she realizes that now the bar-mitzvah is over she has nothing to do with her life.

Herbie, who comes home from a hard day's work only to have an imaginary conversation with his sleeping family, is a touching figure whose barely contained malevolence toward his sons is explained by his deep frustration.

After telling his family about a job offer for an important position in New Mexico, his wife responds: ``There are no Jews in New Mexico.''

When he finally storms out toward the end of the play it is only to see a movie (``Born Free'') and then return. We see several imagined scenes of high drama between him and Doris, but the reality is much more mundane. And so it goes, as Doris imagines conversations with her dead Aunt Marsha (Liz Larsen), and Mitchell creates scenes for his ludicrous musical.

Margulies's play neither fully succeeds as fleshed-out family drama nor as surrealistic spoof, and the intermixing of the two styles is often awkward. But it is rare enough to find either genuine humor or honest emotion in a play, let alone both, and for all its faults, ``The Loman Family Picnic'' succeeds where more straightforward dramas have failed.

* `Any Given Day' has an open-ended run. `The Loman Family Picnic' continues through Jan. 15.

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