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`Uncommon Women' Ages Poorly, McNally's Latest Has Its Strengths

On Broadway and off, two plays explore labyrinthine relationships

UNCOMMON WOMEN AND OTHERS. Play by Wendy Wasserstein. Directed by Carole Rothman. At the Lucille Lortel Theatre

LOVE! VALOUR! COMPASSION! Play by Terrence McNally. Directed by Joe Mantello. At Manhattan Theatre Club at City Center

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ONE of the characters in Wendy Wasserstein's first play, now being revived at the Second Stage, has a constant refrain about how the members of the group are going to be amazing once they hit a certain age. The same cannot be said for this play.

``Uncommon Women and Others'' depicts the trials and tribulations of a group of young students at an elite college for women, as seen in a flashback reunion scene. Many of the feminist themes that would become preeminent in Wasserstein's later, richer works (``The Heidi Chronicles,'' ``The Sisters Rosensweig'') are in ample evidence here, but the anecdotal structure of the piece prevents it from developing any emotional momentum.

The original 1977 production is fondly remembered (and is preserved largely intact in a public television videotape). That production boasted a stellar cast of performers, several of whom went on to become stars: Glenn Close, Swoosie Kurtz, and Jill Eikenberry.

The current production features a competent group of actresses who are already familiar to New York theatergoers, but they are not quite luminous enough to elevate the dated artifice of the work.

THERE'S love, valour, and compassion aplenty in Terrence McNally's play, which has opened Off Broadway to the strongest reviews so far this season. There's also plenty of darker emotions. No contemporary playwright is as effective in blending high comedy with pathos, in giving us characters that will make you laugh and break your heart.

McNally's impact on both the New York stage and in Hollywood films is considerable. He is adept at creating emotional balancing acts.

In his screenplay for the 1991 film ``Frankie and Johnny,'' which starred Al Pacino and Michelle Pfeiffer, he paired an unlikely short-order cook with an emotionally withdrawn waitress. In the book for the musical version of ``Kiss of the Spider Woman,'' McNally juxtaposed a political revolutionary's single-mindedness against the escapism of his homosexual cellmate. His most recent Off Broadway hit was ``Lips Together, Teeth Apart,'' which pitted two mismtached married couples against one another.

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``Love! Valour! Compassion!'' is a rondelet among seven homosexual men spending summer weekends together at a house in upstate New York. This is the playwright's most insularly gay-themed play, but in its emotional concerns it is also one of his most universal.

If there's a fault with the play, it's that McNally, even more than usual, seems unconcerned with finding any real dramatic structure or plot. The play, which hits the three-hour mark, is a succession of vignettes that have all the narrative drive of one of those lazy summer weekends. The play's up-front and at times crass attitude toward nudity and sexuality will put off many theatergoers, but the characters are delineated with compassion and humor.

Director Joe Mantello, (an actor who was excellent in last season's ``Angels in America'') has directed with a fine comic flair and imagination.

McNally's writing here is extremely fluid - a character might suddenly slip into the role of narrator, but the audience never loses its bearings. There are nice stylistic touches as well: the men sweetly harmonizing on various songs to open or close the acts; the opening image, with the group standing over a small model house that represents the play's setting.

What truly makes the play work are the performances. No one is less than superb, from the better-known actors like Stephen Spinella (fresh from two Tonys for ``Angels in America'') and John Glover (familiar to television audiences and a five-time Emmy nominee) to relative newcomers like Justin Kirk and Randy Becker.

Nathan Lane, who is quickly establishing himself as one of the foremost comic acting talents of our time (he will soon be co-starring with Robin Williams in the movie remake of ``La Cage Aux Folles'') continues to score huge laughs just about every time he opens his mouth.

The other players include Stephen Bogardus and John Benjamin Hickey.

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