Cartoonist Feiffer's stark family drama

Verbal pollution can present as great a problem to the family as ecological pollution to our society. Sometimes the most disturbing and heartbreaking family trauma is caused by a breakdown in communication. An unnerving exercise in verbal pollution is the subject of a semi-autobiographical play, Grown Ups (PBS, Friday, 9-11 p.m.), by Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist and playwright Jules Feiffer. It is being presented on ``Great Performances.''

Jake, a reporter at the New York Times, and his family talk to each other, but they don't seem to hear what's said. Their words are used to muffle understanding.

Charles Grodin, perhaps a bit mature for the part of the young journalist, nonetheless manages to portray the frustration of the emotionally immature father with agonizing accuracy. Jean Stapleton, miscast as the erratic, offbeat mother, tries valiantly to bring a measure of believability to a character that falls somewhere between ``Abie's Irish Rose'' and ``You Can't Take It With You.''

``Grown Ups'' insistently tracks the chain of anger and frustration felt by all its characters and finally erupts into a conflict that leaves everybody -- including the audience -- limp. Nobody ever quite manages, however, to identify the root causes. Nobody learns much from the experience.

Directed unobtrusively by John Madden, the drama reveals a different Feiffer from the amusing, if biting, cartoonist one may be used to. It's a Feiffer without humor. Whatever wit there is comes across as malicious, hurtful, with an undertone of sadness.

Feiffer apparently couldn't make up his mind whether he was writing slapstick comedy or satire. I call it tragedy.

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