Off-Broadway comedy comes on strong; Table Settings Comedy by James Lapine. Directed by Mr. Lapine.

The case for laughter was artfully made in Tina Howe's "the art of dining" and Peter Parnell's "Sorrows of Stephen" (which continues at the Public Theater Cabaret). Samm Art Williams's "Home" proved so congenial to Negro Ensemble Company audiences that it will return to St. Mark's Playhouse for several weeks beginning Feb. 28. Now comes "Table Settings," a smorgasbord of puckish hilarities being served by Playwrights' Horizons on West 42nd Street.

James Lapine's comically catered affair concerns three generations of a New York City Jewish family, whose lives come together and apart -- sometimes simultaneously -- at the groaning board of the title.

The play opens as Sonny, or Younger Son, wearing a waiter's red jacket and red knit cap, adds the final cutlery touches to the table settlings. Thereafter , Mr. Lapine presents an a la carte menu of sketches, soliloquies, sight gags, and plots du jour as the family members congregate and disperse in their several pursuits of happiness.

"Table Settings" resembles a comic strip come to energetic life. Besides Sonny, the ultimate drop-out, "Table Settings" satirizes familiar stereotypes with caricatures of the Jewish mother (Frances Chaney), her Older Son, the lawyer (Brent Spiner), the son's WASP wife (Chris Weatherhead), their two inescapable children (Marta Kober and Eric Gurry), and Sonny's girlfriend (Carolyn Hurlburt), a psychiatric social worker steeped in occupational jargon. Paul Sparer delivers helpful voice-over captions along the way.

Anyone who innocently supposed that such figures as the comic Jewish mother had become passe will find her full of the gloom of life and the joy of cooking in "Table Settings." Her daughter-in-law could have studied under Mr. Arbuthnot, the cliche expert. Some of the family comedy is immemorial (the jeune fille in her first high heels goes back at least as far as "Junior Miss").

On the other hand, Mr. Lapine draws some of his jests from the modes and manners of a more permissive age. As amused observer, the playwright-director brings his own fresh and wacky viewpoint to the standard material of bourgeois behavior.

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