Three likable plays open, in New York; Major Barbara Comedy By George Bernard shaw. Directed by Stephen Porter.

"Major Barbara," at the Circle in the Square, invests high intellectual comedy with the appealingly human qualities of heart and moral passion. The spirited revival staged by stephen Porter impresses as much by its depth of emotion as by its comic sharpness. The principals in the Shavian debate are strong-willed people, ready to defend their convictions to the last syllable. Even the sillies are allowed a touch of nature that makes them engaging.

Rachel Gurney, looking and behaving like the subject for a portrait of an Edwardian beauty, gets the comedy off to a rippling start as she establishes Lady Britomart's imperious command of any given situation.

The situation at hand is the imminent visit of her husband, Andrew Undershaft , the munitions millionaire. Undershaft (Philip Bosco) supports his family in lavish style, even though he has been so long out of touch with them that he must be introduced to his grown children, Barbara, Sarah, and Stephen. It is to Stephen that Lady Brit turns for advice on how Undershaft should be dealt with in the matter of his daughters' dowries. the "advice" consists of agreeing with her proposed arrangements.

From this drawing-room comedy premise, Shaw launches into a series of intellectual and moral debates and ironic confrontations. In their unfoldment, Major Barbara (Laurie Kennedy) of the Salvation Army loses and regains her fervor. The man in her life, Adolphus Cusins (Nicolas Surovy), professor of Greek and technical foundling, satisfies the necessary requirements to become heir apparent of Undershaft and Lazarus, cannon makers to the world.

Mr. Porter and his players delight equally in the upper-class light comedy of "Major Barbara" -- the silly nonsense of Cholly Lomax (Rand Bridges) and Sarah (Gina Franz) -- and the cockney comedy of Rummy Mitchens and Snobby Price (Paddy Croft and Norman Allen). On the other hand, when it comes to the sweeping Shavian arguments, wit and brilliance are backed up by intense conviction. Thus , in the extraordinary performance of Jon De Vries, bullying Bill walker becomes darkly troubled as well as ludicrous. His mocking "What price salvation?" to Barbara harshens the agony of a do-gooder who has just seen her slum mission work rescued by benefactions from whiskey distillers and arms merchants.

Again, when Andrew Undershaft defends the Undershaft heritage and its motto, "Unashamed," Mr. bosco delivers the defense with fire, fury, and pride. Mr. Surovy's bearded Cusins, the cloistered scholar driven to accept the challenge of an alien world, resists Undershaft's overtures with all the intel lectual resourcefulness and literary allusion at his command before making his inevitable choice. As Barbara, Miss Kennedy seems motivated as much by essential femininity as by liberated feminisnm. It is a warm and touching performance.

By a certain amount of judicious cutting and by having only one intermisssiion, Mr. Porter keeps the running time of this very long play to less than thre hours. But he has not slighted the play's complex of situations and characters. The human dimensions of the comedy are sustained along the way by a company that includes Frank Hamilton as Peter Shirley, Amanda Carlin as Jenny Hill, and Joan Croydon as Mrs. Baines. The admirable production was designed by Zack Brown (scenery and costumes), John McLain (lighting), and Paul Huntly (wigs and hairstyles)

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