Robards in rich portrayal of comical retiree. Larbey play comments on aging through humor

A Month of Sundays Comedy by Bob Larbey. Directed by Gene Saks. Starring Jason Robards. Humor is the weapon with which Cooper confronts the demons of aging and infirmity in Bob Larbey's ``A Month of Sundays,'' at the Ritz Theatre. The humor can be mordant, self-derisive, and irrepressible. Because Cooper is played by Jason Robards, the confrontations are formidably comic in this Americanized version of a British original.

Cooper is one of the residents of a rest and retirement home in Westchester County, New York - a comfortably old-fashioned retreat. That the elderly widower is a voluntary guest doesn't mean he intends making life any easier for the staff, whose patience and good nature he is fully prepared to test. Cooper conducts a slightly outrageous flirtation with compassionate Nurse Wilson (Felicity LaFortune) and spars vigorously with Mrs. Baker (Lynne Thigpen), the no-nonsense but equally indulgent cleaning woman.

Cooper's only companion in this self-enclosed community is the mellower Aylott (Salem Ludwig). They share jokes, play chess, toast their fantasy ``escape plan,'' and try without success to recall the names of all the players on the 1937 Giants team. They also mock the clich'es of institutionalism and deal less than charitably with those senile guests they dub ``zombies.''

The action takes place on the first Sunday in April and the first Sunday in May, the days on which Cooper receives visits from his humorless daughter, Julia (Patricia Elliott), and her husband, Peter (Richard Portnow), an easy mark for Cooper. The awkwardness of the first visit is heightened by Julia's explanation that the couple have not brought their young son because, she says, Cooper's accounts of life in the residence had given the child nightmares.

By the second visit, confrontation predictably gives way to reconciliation. Such is the humanity with which Mr. Larbey treats his subject. An even more touching development is Aylott's discovery of the memory lapses he has begun to experience and the vigorous determination with which Cooper seeks to reassure his old friend. ``A Month of Sundays'' ends with an assertion of courage. A modest genre comedy, the play makes its points through humor and indirection.

The rich portrayal by Mr. Robards - and the excellent ensemble performance staged by Gene Saks - substantiate the play's claims as a comedy with something pertinent to say in an era of a growing elderly population. Besides his charisma, the star brings a fund of histrionic energy to his geriatric role. When Cooper announces that he is going to ``take a walk'' and then manages a few faltering steps, the spectator is irresistibly drawn to rooting for him. However ornery and cantankerous Cooper grows, Robards keeps contact with the motivations of a man determined not to be defeated by the limitations and bodily malfunctions associated with aging. This, along with his defiant sense of humor, is the vitality of his life force.

Miss LaFortune gives a lovely performance as Nurse Wilson, whose announcement that she is going to marry the man she has been living with prompts Cooper to a genuinely affectionate response. Mr. Ludwig is fine as the companionable Aylott, and Miss Thigpen exhibits Mrs. Baker's gentler side as she sings ``Alice Blue Gown'' and waltzes briefly with Cooper. Miss Elliott and Mr. Portnow make a graceful transition from the awkwardness of the initial visit to a new kind of mutual understanding. Marjorie Bradley Kellogg designed Cooper's commodiously handsome quarters, with costumes by Joseph G. Aulisi and lighting by Tharon Musser.

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