New York — Sweet Sue Play by A.R. Gurney Jr. Directed by John Tillinger. Starring Mary Tyler Moore, Lynn Redgrave. A.R. Gurney Jr. occupies his own high ground in the landscape of contemporary American social comedy. Plays like ``The Dining Room,'' ``The Middle Ages,'' and ``The Perfect Party'' have entertained the public and pleased even the critics - but not, so far, on Broadway. ``Sweet Sue,'' Mr. Gurney's latest, has just opened at the hospitable Music Box in a gift-wrapped production starring Mary Tyler Moore and Lynn Redgrave.
The stars play alternating and complementing aspects of Sue Wetherell, a fortyish suburban divorcee who does pretty well financially designing Hallmark cards and who may have a higher artistic potential. Without notifying his mother, Sue's son Ted has invited his Dartmouth roommate, Jake, to spend the summer at his mother's house while doing local painting jobs. (Ted is an offstage presence throughout the comedy.)
With his premise established, Gurney proceeds to explore the increasingly complex relationship between Susan's double persona and a pair of Jakes (John K. Linton and Barry Tubb). ``Sweet Sue'' is prevailingly comic, relevant to its times and mores, and occasionally touching. Arrived at a point where her personal life ``leaves something to be desired,'' vulnerable Sue becomes infatuated with Jake. Her attitudes gyrate wildly from determined self-control to jealous possessiveness as she struggles to cope with feelings that threaten to overwhelm her. For his part, Jake's growing affection for the older woman is part of a rite of passage that frees him to engage in a meaningful relationship with a girl of his own age. Such are the bittersweet ironies of a play whose theme song is the 1928 pop tune with which Susan's father used to calm her as a child. As she says at one point, ``I'm sure Freud has something to tell us here.'' Sue's summer flirtation with emotional disaster marks her own belated coming of age.
Under John Tillinger's direction, the stars and their young supporting players respond with sensitive assurance to the complex demands of Gurney's emotionally intricate play. Miss Moore's warm directness and her inimitable way with a comic line are admirably suited to Susan's needs. As the slightly cooler, critical, and yet supportive Susan Too, Miss Redgrave can chide or challenge her alter ego without becoming objectionably censorious. As Jake and Jake Too respectively, Linton and Tubb give the kinds of straightforwardly ingenuous performances the writing demands. The brief scenes in which Jake allows Susan to draw him in the nude are discreetly handled.
As a starring vehicle for such actresses as Moore and Redgrave, the production at the Music Box cannot be faulted. It has been handsomely designed by Santo Loquasto (airy setting), Ken Billington (lighting), and Jess Goldstein (costumes). At its best and sweetest, ``Sweet Sue'' sings. But while the comedy reaches a kind of resolution, it seems substantively shallow. Gurney's latest comedy may also be his slightest.