A Broadway-bound satire -- heartwarming and hilarious

The Oscar-winning screenwriter of "Breaking Away" has a new play on the way from Los Angeles to Broadway this fall. The extended premiere engagement of Steve Tesich's "Division Street" broke the Mark Taper Forum's house record, which had been set by another comedy that then went on the New York, Neil Simon's current "I Ought to Be in Pictures."

When New Yorkers catch up with "Division Street," they may see a key incident as art imitating life. But having squeezed into one of the last sold-out performances before a recent New York Times came out, I can testify to the reverse -- life imitating art or, in this case, life imitating farce.

For the Times contained an article by Jerry Rubin beginning: "I accepted a position on Wall Street this week. That might strike some people as surprising. I was one of a small group of street-threater Yippies who stormed the New York Stock Exchange 13 years ago and threw dollar bills from the visitors' gallery."

Already, for weeks, Taper audiences had been laughing at the spectacle of a former activist leader from the 1960s taking an establishment job in Chicago. He is actually required by his boss to write a newspaper article as part of his rehabilitation in the public eye. As the determinedly zany characters accumulate, his past overtakes him, filtered through a decade in which he has changed, they have changed, the country has changed, and the question beneath the crude and outrageous surfaces becomes, "Can there be an America the beautiful again?"

It then is Tesich's often hilarious and eventually even heartwarming task to have fun at everybody's expense and thus practically nobody's.

Just when it seems the point of view is a fashionable ridiculing of the motley '60s crew -- with its motely '60s ideals -- a fondly foolish hint of redeeming possibilities comes through. Just when it seems that every dubious subject is being used as an easy excuse for comedy -- race, prostitution, homosexuality, transsexuality -- it appears that the essential targets are the characters' attitudes toward such subjects.

Not that "Division Street" was exactly put together like a watch in its pre-Broadway form. Mr. Tesich's gags did not always engage the sprockets of plot and character. The second act was better than the first in combining satire and the relentless, slamming-door mechanism of farce. Then the broad but carefully interlocked performances under Tom Moore's direction came into their own.

Of course, by the time "Division Street" gets to Broadway other comments may apply. Other audiences will be able to test whether Yugoslavian-born Tesich, already known Off Broadway, is staying in line with his succinct self-analysis: "I consider myself a conservative in everything except politics."

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