Behind the Broken Words

Selections of poetry and prose chosen, arranged, and spoken by Roscoe Lee Browne and Anthony Zerbe. Two fine actors are giving a poetry recital with a discreet touch of class and theatricalism at the American Place Theater. Roscoe Lee Browne and Anthony Zerbe have drawn from the works of more than 20 writers, mostly poets, for ''Behind the Broken Words'' (the title is from a line in Lawrence Ferlinghetti's ''Junkman's Obligato'').

The performance opens on a blacked-out stage as Messrs. Browne and Zerbe enact the satiric dialogue of e.e. cumming's ''The Very Latest School in Art,'' about a painter who paints in the dark and loftily spurns patronage until offered a $5 fee. The actors apply the give-and-take response in several pieces, typically the fatal war of words between Thyrsis and Corydon in Edna St. Vincent Millay's antiwar dialogue from ''Conversation at Midnight.'' Miss Millay, the most frequently excerpted poet of the evening, supplies the lyrics for two songs , ''The Rain Comes Down'' and ''Mariposa,'' with Mr. Zerbe's delicate guitar accompaniments.

The most moving recital of the evening is Mr. Brown's delivery (under a single spotlight) of Richard Wright's tragic ''Between the World and Me.''

In everything but its devotion to the words themselves, the entertainment is casual and understated. Action is minimal and therefore, when used, the more effective. There is an occasional histrionic effect, as when Miss Millay calls for two minutes' silence. The actors - and the audience - observe it. The setting is simple: two backdrop panels of neutral color, two high stools, and an L-shaped coffee table.

The concentration is on the poets and their poetry, on the delicacy and power of communication. The mood is often rueful and even somber, sometimes funny, occasionally mordant.

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