A not-so-festive season for recent Broadway openings
Like the rest of the world, Broadway first-nighters have their pre-Christmas rush. It is provided by hopeful impresarios eager to celebrate - or at any rate cash in on - the festive season. The calendar for the two weeks immediately preceding Christmas Day lists an array of attractions, with the accent on comedy. The day after Christmas brings a brief but welcome lull.
While our friendly neighborhood playmakers have been lighting up the sky, this has not proved to be a particularly festive season in the Broadway area. New arrivals have received more than their share of negative - and sometimes unaccountably savage - reviews. For those engaged in the perilous business of putting on shows, the view of mid-December has been less than encouraging. 'Monday After the Miracle'
The most serious casualty was William Gibson's ''Monday After the Miracle,'' which closed after nine previews and seven regular performances. It was in effect a sequel to Mr. Gibson's stirring 1959 play, ''The Miracle Worker,'' which climaxed with teacher Annie Sullivan's breaking through the barriers of deafness and blindness that had imprisoned young Helen Keller.
In ''Monday After the Miracle,'' Mr. Gibson is considering the lives of Annie (Jane Alexander) and Helen (Karen Allen) some 20 years later and the effect on their relationship of Annie's 12-year marriage to young editor John Macy (William Converse-Roberts). The tensions of what became a triangular situation, plus attendant complications, irreparably damaged the delicate balance of interdependence in the small household and ended the Macys' marriage.
''Monday After the Miracle'' is a humane and thoughtful play. It was expressively acted under Arthur Penn's careful direction. Yet the dramatic potential inherent in the emotionally turbulent circumstances of the conflict remained insufficiently realized in theatrical terms.
The Gibson work was one of the season's few serious plays on Broadway. It illustrated the special problems faced by such plays in the contemporary commercial theater. But even in the comedy department, this pre-Christmas hasn't proved the season to be particularly jolly. 'A Little Family Business'
From France (by way of Jay Presson Allen's adaptation) has come a slight, old-fashioned, all-out satirical farce in the Paris boulevard tradition. The original was by Barillet and Gredy, who gave us such trifles as ''Cactus Flower'' and ''Forty Carats.''
The latest transplant, ''A Little Family Business,'' tells how a deceptively naive Massachusetts matron (Angela Lansbury) takes over the running of the family carpet-sweeper factory after the nonfatal collapse of her racist reprobate of a husband (John McMartin). The frolicsome foolishness at the Martin Beck Theater involves the springing of assorted skeletons from the family closet and the uncovering of past potential scandals.
This kind of broad nonsense requires the utmost from its players in the way of technique, timing, energy, and finesse. The consummately versatile Miss Lansbury sets a marvelous pace for her fellow players, while Mr. McMartin tears a comic passion to tatters as her bigoted and blasphemous spouse. 'Steaming'
From the usually reliable British has come a dull, sleazy sex farce masquerading as an expression of feminist and social concern. ''Steaming,'' by Nell Dunn, takes place in the women's section of a London Turkish bath in the 1970s. A big West End hit, it seems dated and adolescent here. The characters are stereotypes, the sentiments are cliches, and the confrontations are predictable.
Miss Dunn's innovation consists of having several members of the all-female cast conduct their conversations in the nude or seminude. Had ''Steaming'' been the work of a male dramatist, it would have been dismissed as sexist exploitation. Under the circumstances, the performance is a credit to the company of actresses at the Brooks Atkinson Theater.
The ladies of the bath represent a cross section ranging from a foul-mouthed member of the underclass to a prim divorcee from affluent suburbia. In the second act, the women unite to save the bath from threatened demolition by city authorities who plan to replace it with a public library. That would seem to be a sound civic improvement. 'Almost an Eagle'
Finally, from the corn country of Iowa came an unabashedly corny comedy by Michael Kimberly about a tatterdemalion Boy Scout troop and its doughty but bibulous scoutmaster. Even veteran James Whitmore's almost inexhaustible store of wiles, tricks, and grimaces could not conceal the fact that the short-lived ''Almost an Eagle'' was not even almost a play. Instead, Mr. Kimberly contrived a series of sitcom situations in which the bedraggled troop's ex-marine Corps mentor tried - and failed - to outwit the local high school marching band in the annual Memorial Day ceremonies at Table Rock, Iowa.