Janet Gaynor in stage debut; Harold and Maude Comedy by Colin Higgins. Directed by Robert Lewis. Starring Janet Gaynor.

Like the movie and the novel that preceded it, "Harold and Maude," at the Martin Beck Theater, seeks to make believable the unlikely relationship between a fey octogenarian countess and a suicidal 19-year-old boy. The notion succeeds as make-believe thanks to the light-hearted performance directed by Robert Lewis and to the glowing presence of former film star Janet Gaynor. Miss Gaynor makes her Broadway stage debut as the zestfully moving life force of Colin Higgins' offbeat upbeat comedy.

As the family analyst soon discovers. Harold Chasen (Keith McDermott) uses suicide attempts as spectacular attention getters. These ghoulish pranks disturb the even tenor of life for widow Chasen (Ruth Ford). What is far worse, they interfere with her appointments at the hairdresser. Determined to find him a wife, Mrs. Chasen decides to entrust Harold's romantic future to a computer dating service. Harold responds by staging a fake suicide for each of the prospects. The first two flee the scene. But the third, and actress, grasps the possibilities of his trick hara kiri sword and proceeds to play the death scene from "Romeo and Juliet." Nita Novy plays it to the hilarious hilt.

Meanwhile, Harold has encountered Countess Maude (Miss Gaynor) at one of the funeral services he has a habit of attending. But far from being morbidly inclined, Maude is a survivor, a life affirmer, a bold and adventurous sprit. Soon Maude has welcomed Harold to her house with its clutter of momorabilia, including a sort of magical musical Chinese gong and a full-scale traffic light that works. Harold joins her in a series of venturesome activities that include tree planting, car theft, and tree climbing to get a better perspective on life and the surrounding landscape.

Harold gradually falls in love with this sweet but spunky elder, buys an engagement ring, and horrifies Mrs. Chasen by announcing he intends to marry Maude. However, the worldly wise and wisely innocent Maude has other ideas. And since "Harold and Maude" is at heart a fantasy, Mr. Higgins settles matters on his own terms.

Like the Tony Straiges revolving set, which places Mrs. Chasen's chaste drawing room back-to-back with Maude's thrift shop premises, the comedy itself rotates between broad lampoon of conventional attitudes and the joyful wonderment of Maude's liberated lifestyle. Commenting on religious obsession with crucifixes, she observes, "Youd's think no one eve read the end of the story." On the other hand, her mementos include souvenirs of the concentration camp she survived. She has paid her dues for the right to affirmation.

"Harold and Maude," with its tender tenuousness and whimsicality, could have suffered from rough handling. Instead, under Mr. Lewis's tactful direction, it has been treated with careful delicacy. There is nothing self-conscious about Miss Gaynor's Maude. The actress simply personifies the qualities that make the countess a beautiful, utterly captivating eccentric.

Mr. McDermott is both funny and touching as the mixed-up young man who learns to say yes to life. Miss Ford gives a very amusing performance as the nonplussed Mrs. Chasen. In addition to those already mentioned, Jack Bittner, Jay Barney, Marc Jordan, Chet Doherty, Denny Dillon, and Nonnie Weaver help sustain the mood of comic fantasy. David Amram composed the affirmative incidental music and lyrics as well as they variety of sound effects.

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