New York's up-and-down theater; Back in the Race Drama by milan Stitt. Directed by Leonard Peters.

One of the theater's most tantalizing characteristics is its variability -- most of all in content and quality. Consider, for instance, the respected Circle Repertory Company the company's hit of the 1978-79 season -- "Talley's Folly," by Lanford Wilson -- moved to Broadway last February and added to its laurels this month by winning the 1980 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

None of the Circle Rep's other recent new play ventures has approached the quality of Mr. Wilson's gently romantic comedy. but none has been quite so abysmal as "Back in the Race," the latest offering at the Play- house on Sheridan Square. According to a press release about the production, Milan Stitt's "Family Album" (as it is subtitled) "traces the generations of Puritan theologian Jonathan Edwards, when the seventh generation confronts incest and murder as his inescapable heritage." Jonathan Edwards VII also confronts Mr. Stitt (or vice versa). It is an unfortunate encounter.

This dull and wretchedly pretentious play imagines that Jonathan (William Carden) visits the Edwards family summer estate on Lake Tawas, Mich. There he discovers Cliff (John Randolph) a reclusively hostile family retainer, and Zabrina (Joyce Reehling), a half-Indian girl whom the belligerent caretaker claims as his daughter. The performance directed by Leonard Teeters is of a piece with the writing. Mired in such dramaturgic murkiness, the hapless players probably faced a hopeless situation. Mark it down to variableness and hope the Circle Rep is more careful in the future.

On the credit side, Mr. Stitt's "The Runner Stumbles" enjoyed some success on Broadway in 1976, received special mention in "The Best Plays of 1965-76," and was subsequently filmed by Stanley Kramer.

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