Comic game of male bonds and locker room humor

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Doubles Comedy by David Wiltse. Starring John Cullum, Ron Leibman, Austin Pendleton, Tony Roberts. Directed by Morton Da Costa. Everyone's for tennis in ``Doubles,'' which has bounced noisily onto the stage of the renovated Ritz Theatre. ``Doubles'' may not be for everyone. Yet it can be reported that the audience at one of the final previews found David Wiltse's new comedy consistently amusing and sometimes uproarious.

Mr. Wiltse sets his tale of life among Connecticut Yuppies in the men's locker room of the Norwalk Racquet Club. For several years, four friends have been meeting every week to trade raillery and confidences between sessions on the court. Three of the quartet's regulars are Lennie (Ron Leibman), whose lowly position in his father-in-law's grocery business aggravates his normally obnoxious aggressiveness; Arnie (Austin Pendleton), a mild-mannered lawyer with a philandering disposition; and George (Tony Roberts), a stockbroker and would-be lyric writer.

On the day the comedy commences, the quartet's fourth regular has been replaced by newcomer Guy (John Cullum), a pedantic tennis writer with a penchant for platitudes and anthropological trivia. In the scenes that follow, Wiltse provides a survey course in Jewishisms and locker-room jive and humor as the members of the odd quartet interact with each other and react to the changed situation of relationships. The author's focal conflict centers on the hostility between the compulsively irritated Lennie and the unconsciously irritating Guy.

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All is not fun and games for these middle-aged locker-room lads. Lennie's violence almost wrecks his marriage. George, some of whose dealings have come under federal investigation, suffers a heart attack. Arnie loses his wife and Guy loses his job. Finally, on a day not fit for beast or tennis hacker, Mr. Wiltse brings his heroes together for a round of good fellowship and reconciliation.

Wiltse's comic method relies heavily on insult and disparagement, running gags, fleeting wisecracks, and the elongated anecdote. If a good deal of it seems more calculated than spontaneous, four highly expert actors make the most of their opportunities, astutely abetted by director Morton Da Costa, veteran of many a comic affray. The cast at the Ritz is completed by Kate Collins as the racquet club's sensationally pretty attendant (a sometime sympathetic listener to the heroes' private thoughts) and by Nicholas Wyman, whose periodic stage crossovers as the lanky club pro invariably bring a laugh.

``Doubles'' is an up-front comedy. What you see is what you get. Whether its characters win or lose on the court is incidental. Besides the bonds of male friendship, the thing that counts is who scores the most points in the locker room. In this respect, the author proves an impartial umpire. The play's almost-all-male enclave has been given an antiseptic-modern treatment by set and costume designer Robert Fletcher. Craig Miller has lighted the premises brightly.

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