Feiffer's caustic comedy

Grown Ups Comedy by Jules Feiffer. Starring Bob Dishy, Frances Sternhagen, Harold Gould. Directed by John Madden.

Jules Feiffer, the satirical writer and widely syndicated cartoonist, has written an acerbic comedy about the times that try men's souls: the trivially troubling times of family life and the New York Times, for which the play's morose hero works. As stage entertainment, ''Grown Ups'' is a painfully funny exercise that ends up being more painful than funny. An interview with Mr. Feiffer in the current Playbill suggests that this is what the author intended - a comedy with serious observations about life in the United States.

Jake (Bob Dishy) of ''Grown Ups'' might be seen as an American Butley or even a Jimmy Porter of ''Look Back in Anger.'' Instead of being a sour provincial teacher or an embittered underclassman, however, Jake is an achiever. He makes Page 1 of the Times, has interviewed Henry Kissinger for Esquire magazine, and has received a plug from David Halberstam for his soon-to-be published first book.

So why is Jake depressed? The trivia of life have got him down. The view from Jake isn't jake at all. The litany is familiar. His doting but demanding parents (Harold Gould and Frances Sternhagen) never truly supported him. Pop's annoying habits (like perpetually asking, ''What's new?'') aggravate his son.

So that's new? Mom did behave badly about teen-age Jake's first valuable watch. Long-suffering wife Louise (Cheryl Giannini), an indifferent housekeeper, insists on sneaking a peek at the last chapter of her Agatha Christie to see who done it. The erratic Jake tends to spoil his demanding little daughter, Edie (Jennifer Dundas), a prime subject of the couple's bitter quarrels.

From all of these trials and trivia, Jake yearns to be set free. His self-obsessed declaration of independence concludes a comedy whose appeal lessens as its three-act length extends. Jake is so aggressively unsympathetic and his caricatured parents become so predictably tiresome that no amount of skillful acting on the stage of the Lyceum Theater can make them enjoyable company or even particularly understandable.

According to the Playbill interview, the disenchanted reflection on Jewish-American family life relates to Mr. Feiffer's own experience, plus his concern over what he sees as the dissolution of all the ties - familial, political, social - that bind Americans together.

Characteristically, Jake's book is about ''the moral and ethical disintegration of the American dream.'' In ''Grown Ups,'' the disintegration takes the form of family bickering, needling, and fierce recrimination.

Whatever his intellectual concern may be, Mr. Feiffer begrudges his audience the balm of human compassion. Agree with him or not, his play is a murky parable. The trouble with the Feiffer grown-ups is that they haven't. The trouble this creates for ''Grown Ups'' is: Who cares?

Under John Madden's direction, the actors dedicate their skills to the diverting anecdotalism as well as the comic discomfiture and ultimate hostility required by the script. Mr. Dishy adapts his accomplished style to the needs of the sour-grapes antihero. He and his colleagues, notably Miss Sternhagen and Mr. Gould, draw on their own resources to create a modicum of plausible motivation for this harsh and arbitrary family portrait. It may say something about the play's curious effect that, at the preview I attended, the exit of Jake's put-upon sister (Kate McGregor-Stewart) attracted a wave of sympathetic applause.

The sets for ''Grown Ups'' were designed by Andrew Jackness. Dunya Ramicova costumed and Paul Gallo lighted the production.

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