Vietnam looms over this domestic drama starring Carroll O'Connor

Home Front Play by James Duff. Starring Carroll O'Connor, Frances Sternhagen. Directed by Michael Attenborough. Caroll O'Connor of Archie Bunker fame heads yet another family in ``Home Front,'' at the Royale Theatre. Mr. O'Connor's Bob Collier, a reasonably patient paterfamilias, would like to relax over his crossword puzzle on Thanksgiving eve. His chatterbox wife, Maurine (Frances Sternhagen), is equally concerned with dinner preparations and with finding out who stole a piece of her newly made peanut brittle. Daughter Karen (Linda Cook) must account for her activities on the evening's date and the time she got home. The family is also vaguely worried about the withdrawn behavior of Jeremy Collier (Christopher Fields), a Vietnam veteran who seems both unwilling and psychologically unequipped for a return to civilian life.

``Home Front'' begins as conventional domestic comedy and proceeds by uneasy stages to violence and shattered relationships. Playwright James Duff is concerned with the broader implications of the eroding effects fo the Vietnam trauma on an average family of Dallas and Fort Worth suburbanites as they prepare to celebrate a national feast day. Jeremy is more than the living ghost at the feast. The growing conflicts, of which he is the central cause, project Mr. Duff's feelings about latent American misgivings and the reluctance or inability to come to terms with them.

The production staged by Michael Attenborough (who succeeded the late Alan Schneider, director of the London premi`ere) attempts to harmonize the play's disparate moods. Mr. O'Connor brings an air of both authority and decent concern to the father figure as Bob Collier, who struggles to maintain control of his household and eventually to provide a token solution for a situation he doesn't understand. In a role she must strive to rescue from caricature, the sterling Miss Sternhagen delivers Maurine's stale clich'es with just the right tone of bland conviction. Miss Cook's Karen can switch instantaneously from sisterly solicitude to bickering and tantrums. Mr. Fields invests the role with the required sense of alienation that precedes and provokes the eventual violent confrontation.

Sue Plummer's original set design has been adapted by Frank J. Boros for the present production, with costumes by John Falabella and lighting by Ken Billington. Dancing in the End Zone Play by Bill C. Davis. Starring Pat Carroll, Laurence Luckinbill, Dorothy Lyman, Matt Salinger. Directed by Melvin Bernhardt.

For the second production of its current Mainstage series, the Manhattan Theatre Club has mounted a historically based, visually striking, dramatically attenuated drama about 17th-century Polish Jewry. In a series of often fleeting vignettes, Martin Sherman's ``Messiah'' follows the adventures of an ugly Jewess named Rachel (Diane Venora) on a pilgrimage to Asia Minor in search of Sabbatai Sevi, a charismatic Jewish mystic and self-proclaimed messiah. ``Messiah'' abounds in the bizarre. Rachel's briefly articulate mother (Verna Bloom) is possessed by a murky demon. Rachel's elderly husband, Reb Ellis (David Warrilow), sells his fruit store and then kills himself jumping off a roof in the illusion that he can fly to the messiah. The young widow finds a brief but passionate companionship with Reb Ellis's fanatically religious nephew (Mark Blum).

The tragic end of the pilgrimage and the relationship leaves Rachel abandoned and alone. Even in such dire circumstances, however, the indomitable survivor continues her dialogue with the Almighty she now considers the author of her misfortunes. Mr. Sherman presents her, and Miss Venora plays her, as an intelligent naif. Rachel is the outwardly submissive but unwilling prisoner of a society which is itself imperiled. Talking to God, she makes wry jokes, and even scolds Him.

Thus Mr. Sherman applies a 20th-century sensibility to a 16th-century situation. Among other things, ``Messiah'' is a play about faith and superstition, belief and gullibility, the mistaking of hysteria for rapture, and the allure of the mystical. The exploration ends up being more mysterious than the author may have intended. It is obscure rather than profound.

With her sharp intelligence and wry humor, Miss Venora's Rachel sets the tone for the flavorful performance staged by David Leveaux. Tony Straiges's spare but beautiful settings, James F. Ingalls's intricate light plot, and Linda Fisher's costumes all contribute to the imaginative theatricalism with which the production has been endowed. ``Messiah'' plays through Jan. 13 in the downstairs auditorium at City Center Theater.

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