`Petition': British conversation piece staged on Broadway

The Petition Play by Brian Clark. Directed by Peter Hall. Starring Jessica Tandy, Hume Cronyn. A pair of superbly balanced performances, dialogue that ranges from rippling repartee to wounding recrimination, and a topical theme inform ``The Petition,'' at the Golden Theatre. As they did in the two-character comedy ``The Gin Game,'' Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn costar brilliantly -- this time as a retired British army couple whose marriage of many years reaches crisis point in the course of Brian Clark's conversation piece in two keys. It is a tour de force for this incomparable wife-and-husband acting team.

``The Petition'' begins in the dryly humorous vein of civilized English comedy. At 10 o'clock On a typical morning in their Belgravia drawing room, Lady Elizabeth Milne (Miss Tandy) serenely reads the Guardian while General Sir Edmund Milne (Mr. Cronyn) fusses over The Times crossword puzzle. Edmund is outraged to see a friend and fellow general's name among the signers of a display advertisement urging the government to renounce first use of nuclear weapons. Moments later, he is totally appalled to discover Lady Milne among the list signers. How can he face the inevitable scandal -- particularly since she proposes to participate in an Albert Hall rally.

The altercation springing from their differences on everything from politics to nuclear policy rapidly expands into an unsettling backward look at their apparently tranquil marriage. For a definitive complication, Mr. Clark climaxes Act I with the emotional shock disclosure -- to her husband as well as to the spectator -- that Elizabeth is fatally ill and has been given but a few months to live. Their ideological differences recede farther into the background in Act II when Elizabeth learns that Edmund has always been aware of her long-ago fling with one of his fellow officers in the Indian service.

How the general and his lady face up to their tragic dilemma occupies the remainder of ``The Petition.'' Clark (author of the successful ``Whose Life Is It, Anyway?'') handles the raveling and unraveling with adroit craftsmanship. At the same time the accumulation of surprise revelations tends to lengthen the play without strengthening the drama. As character study, ``The Petition'' evenhandedly balances Edmund's ramrod rigidities against Elizabeth's more humane susceptibilities. Yet it was she who betrayed their marriage. Her rationalization that Edmund's military career was his mistress is, to say the least, self-serving.

Topically wide-ranging and relevant as it is, ``The Petition'' finally comes to rely more on the brilliance of the performance, unobtrusively staged by Peter Hall, than on the depth of Clark's philosophical argument. With her extraordinary vocal expressiveness and apparently effortless grace, Tandy endows Elizabeth with a richer appeal than the lady perhaps deserves. Mustached and bespectacled, Cronyn bristles with military tradition, the very model of an old-fashioned officer and gentleman, but with a stiff upper lip that can tremble.

The serene setting handsomely serves Clark's conversation piece. Designer John Bury divides the Milnes's Belgravia drawing room into two sectors that could be designated, symbolically at least, His and Hers.

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