A 1963 film for today

At last, a Hollywood movie that addresses one of the key issues of our time.

True, it was made in 1963. But it has been reissued by Columbia Pictures, and its subject is as relevant - nay, urgent - as ever. Dr. Strangelove, or, How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb is clearly a film for today.

Which raises an interesting question. Why must we go back to 1963 to find a film that mirrors the concerns of the current anti-nuclear-weapon movement? Even in purely economic terms, ''Dr. Strangelove'' was a big hit with its savagely comic view of military madness in the atomic age. You'd think Hollywood might have returned to this theme in the interim - or might do so now, as popular sentiment swells with regard to halting the nuclear-arms race.

And how about the other issues that exercise society in the '80s? Did one major film directly address the idea of an Equal Rights Amendment, during the 10 years the ERA struggled for passage? Has any recent American film suggested the awesome (and irretrievable) finality of capital punishment as forthrightly as ''Breaker Morant'' did - even though there is no capital punishment in Australia , where ''Morant'' was made? And those are just sample issues; others abound.

The point is that Hollywood is more cowardly than ever about tackling topical matters. The only exceptions are occasional political movies such as ''All the President's Men'' and ''The Candidate,'' and meditations on war like ''Coming Home'' and ''The Deer Hunter,'' which are usually made after the war is safely over. It wasn't always like this; even in the early '30s Hollywood dealt with Prohibition, effects of the Great Depression, problems of social justice, and racial conflicts. It is sometimes argued that timely material dates too fast, and is best left to television, which works more quickly. But such issues as feminism and capital punishment have been around a long time, and are likely to linger awhile yet.

So it's time Hollywood got hopping, and supplemented its profitable fantasies - ''E.T.,'' ''Poltergeist,'' and the rest, no matter how charming - with some meat and potatoes. In the meantime, ''Dr. Strangelove'' is always worth another look. Technically, it's too mechanically structured to qualify as a cinematic masterpiece. But it remains one of the boldest looks Hollywood has ever given an issue of daunting importance. For it, filmmaker Stanley Kubrick deserves lasting respect.

The 17th-century classic, staged by Norman Ayrton at the Haft Theater on West 27th Street, sensibly observes translator Richard Wilbur's advice against attempting to ''update'' Moliere in the cause of latter-day feminism. In the published text, Mr. Wilbur points out that hero Clitandre's liberalism, for his time, heroine Henriette's ''attractively balanced nature, and the abnormality of the bluestockings (pseudo-intellectuals) will only be apparent to a modern audience if the play is so mounted as rather definitely to evoke its period.''

The Roundabout cast has also attended to this piece of Wilbur advice: ''Delivery of the lines should be letter-perfect, so as not to falsify the meter; yet within the artifice of the verse the actors should try to speak as naturally as possible.'' Mr. Wilbur's wittily rendered verse dialogue is articulated with crisp and fluid diction.

Problems arise with the stress and strain of Mr. Ayrton's overemphatic direction. To their credit, several of the players manage to survive the resultant exaggerations. Philip Bosco is a tower of comic strength as Chrysale, the submissive spouse who finally asserts his parenthood to insist that Henriette (Cynthia Dozier) marry Clitandre (Randle Mell), the man she loves, instead of the foolish opportunist Trissotin (Richard Kavanaugh). The young lovers are agreeably played, while Rosemary Murphy (Chrysale's wife) and Jennifer Harmon (his elder daughter) exude zealous determination as the bluestockings.

Some of the other principals - notably Mr. Kavanaugh's popinjay poetaster and Carol Teital's twitteringly amorous Belise - seem to have been forced into the kind of excesses that give affectation a bad name. As Chrysale's brother, Robert Stattel provides sibling moral support in a cast that includes Ann MacMillan (Chrysale's plainspoken cook), Gordon Chater (the vacuous Vadius), and George Holmes, doubling as servant and notary.

Mr. Ayrton's scene-changing dumb shows serve as incidental and sometimes amusing aids to a production whose visual delights include the artificial perspectives of Roger Mooney's setting (brightly lit by David F. Segal) and the opulence of John David Ridge's period costumes.

A word of praise, too, for Paul Huntley's wiggery and hairdos. Had the embellishments been matched by a consistent performance style, all might have been well with the Roundabout revival of Moliere's pungent but good-natured satire about this bourgeois gentleman, his learned ladies, and the intellectual-literary fads and fashions of the time.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.