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Off Broadway Serves Up Plays and Musical Comedies Both Sweet and Sour

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Camping With Henry & Tom

At the Lucille Lortel Theatre.

Mark St. Germain's history-based play imagines what might have happened during a 1921 camping trip taken by President Warren Harding, Henry Ford, and Thomas Edison. In it, these three estimable figures become stranded, and in the ensuing hours their true natures are revealed.

What's most surprising about the comedy-drama is that Harding winds up as the most interesting character. He is portrayed as a reluctant president whose greatest pleasure lies in hours of handshaking with common folk on the White House lawn. Any similarities to Ronald Reagan may or may not be intentional.

Harding is also depicted as a genuinely decent man, a man of real emotion, who can't bring himself to kill the deer that caused the car crash that got them stuck in the woods. He contrasts well with Edison, portrayed as a cynical, wisecracking curmudgeon whose deafness comes and goes at his convenience, or Ford, depicted as an ambitious, racist demagogue.

There is a certain thrill in seeing such fascinating historical figures come to life (the best example of this is ''1776''), but the playwright, despite his obvious enthusiasm for the characters, doesn't succeed in mining the situation for any deeper resonance. The banter is engaging and often quite funny, but it isn't long before we are as eager as they are to be rescued. Helping the evening greatly are the wonderful performances: Robert Prosky (Edison), Ken Howard (Harding), and John Cunningham (Ford) bring lively charm to their characterizations.

Silence, Cunning, Exile

At the Joseph Papp Public Theater.

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