Family-oriented theater is starting to make a tiny, commercial comeback - and that's encouraging. For too long there has been a dearth of plays that parents could feel comfortable taking their children to - ones that they would emerge from expanded instead of shattered, warmed instead of titillated.
So we cheer whenever theater owners make a commitment to presenting family entertainment. Two are doing so: the brand-new professional Nickerson Theatre in Norwell (now showing ''You Can't Take It With You'') and the semiprofessional Wheelock Family Theatre (mounting ''Our Town'').
On the face of things, the two plays get high marks: Both deal with families and their dilemmas. There is no profanity, sex, or violence. There is a lot of quiet affection, tolerance, and understanding. And both urge the audience to get out there and appreciate life.
All that is well and good. What is not encouraging is that these two productions are lackluster. This perpetuates the public's thinking that family-oriented means saccharine, amateur, or dull - and they don't go.
The Nickerson's ''You Can't Take It With You'' is dinner theater without the dinner. This Kaufman and Hart classic needs to be a roller coaster of eccentricity: the members of this wild family energetically following their hobbies (snakes, plays, ballet dancing, and fireworks), while inadvertently offending the uptight parents of the daughter's fiance.
To some extent, it works, and the affection does shine through, especially in director George Hamlin's small details: Ed waiting to take off grandpa's coat when he comes home, the unsmarmy attentivenesss of Ed and his ballerina wife and the gallantry of the massive Russian, Mr. Kolenkhov. But overall the production moves with the stately pace of a carousel. The staging is gawky, some characterizations are artificial and some actors miscast. The mother, for example, looks old enough to be the grandmother - which makes her tender exchanges with the father not only unbelievable but downright embarrassing.
Over at Wheelock, ''Our Town'' is like a city slicker starting a vacation in the country: It takes a while to get into the slower pace of it. Thornton Wilder's Pulitzer-winning classic about life in Grover's Corner, N.H., moseys along almost without any of the normal trappings of theater, and it does little more than quietly discuss issues like growing up, falling in love, and appreciating the wonderfulness of life.
The leisurely pace of the play, however, was made even slower by Susan Kosoff's direction. There was a gingerly, positively reverential sense of the play as A Classic that leached out the vitality. Here, too, bad acting, miscasting, and stiff formality marred the show.
Despite those problems, however, Judith McIntyre's bubbly joy lit up Emily. And Dr. Gibbs (Erik Dickinson), in an understated speech that brought his neglectful son to tears, was just lovely.
There's got to be more, however. More than revivals of quaint 50-year-old plays; more than just an absence of profanity, sex, and violence. To get families back in the plush seats again, we're going to need plays that sing with impact on our lives right now - that are properly cast, directed with verve and enthusiasm, and acted competently. If the productions just lope along, shielded behind the scrim of fine reputation, younger audiences won't come. And if they don't come now, we'll have no up-and-coming audience. And what's worse, we'll have a generation bereft of the truly life-expanding experience of live theater. That would be a tragedy.
- C. F.