Van Druten's `The Voice of the Turtle' -- a 1940s love story with a smile

The Voice of the Turtle Comedy by John Van Druten. Directed by Robert Berlinger. Starring Chris Sarandon, Patricia Elliott, and J. Cameron-Smith. John Van Druten wrote ``The Voice of the Turtle'' in three weeks. Producer Alfred de Liagre Jr. bought the script within 24 hours of receiving it, and by the end of the week had signed his cast: Margaret Sullavan, Elliott Nugent, and Audrey Christie. The World War II comedy opened on Dec. 8, 1943, played for more than four years, and became a successful movie.

In the cooler and perhaps harsher light of 1985, some visitors to the Roundabout Theatre may wonder at the enormous popularity of so slight and sentimental a piece of comic playwriting. Others may respond to its craftsmanship and unpretentious pleasures like the departing patron who remarked, ``It's nice, for a change, to see a play with a happy ending.''

The extent to which any work can stand reviving more than 40 years after its introduction depends partly on the degree to which it reflects the ethos of its own time and partly on the faith of its latter-day interpreters. Van Druten took care of the first requirement. The Roundabout revival attends decently to the second.

Chris Sarandon brings the right air of modest soldierliness to the role of Bill Page, the army sergeant with a Princeton degree, a noncommissioned officer and a gentleman. J. Smith-Cameron is appealing, impulsive, and vulnerable as Sally Middleton, the young actress on the rebound from a romance, with whom Bill's unexpected weekend affair turns into true love. Patricia Elliott applies her solid comedianship and throaty laugh to the part of Sally's friend, an older actress who travels in the fast lane and who sets the small plot in motion by standing up Bill.

``The Voice of the Turtle'' is a period comedy of manners, with prevalent attitudes and topical allusions to match its time. Sally belongs to a generation of beguiling ing'enues who once populated escapist fare with titles like ``The Moon is Blue,'' ``My Sister Eileen,'' and ``Kiss and Tell.'' In deference to the genre, Van Druten wrote a '40s love story with a smile.

Robert Berlinger, associate director of San Diego's Old Globe Theatre, has staged the production gracefully. The cross-sectional setting for Sally's East Side Manhattan apartment ($125 a month!) has been cleverly designed by Michael Sharp and well lighted by Ronald Wallace, but Bary Odom's costumes for the ladies are curiously unattractive. The incidental music is rich in big-band treasures.

When it opened in 1943, ``The Voice of the Turtle'' went on to play 1,557 performances. The Roundabout revival runs through July 7.

Historical footnote: In the 1948 film version, Bill was played by a young leading man named Ronald Reagan, with Eleanor Parker and Eve Arden as his leading ladies. Juno's Swans Play by E. Katherine Kerr. Directed by Marsha Mason.

The comic fabrications of ``Juno's Swans'' can seem almost plausible in the accomplished performance staged by Marsha Mason at the Second Stage on upper Broadway. Playwright E. Katherine Kerr is imagining what happens when an uptight provincial matron in retreat from a dissolving marriage descends on the Manhattan flat of her raffishly Bohemian sister in the small hours of a cold winter morning.

Cecilia Miller (Betty Buckley) is all withdrawn refinement and nervous poise. Her sister, Cary Davis (Mary Kay Place), a struggling actress, vents spleen as if it were natural behavior, spouts obscenities as if they were normal speech, and lives a life style combining luxuriant greenery with high-tech squalor. The intermediary in the factious reunion is Douglas Deering (Daniel Hugh-Kelly), an aspiring composer who has written the score for the musical workshop of ``As You Like It'' (in which girlfriend Cary is rehearsing) and who drives a cab and pushes marijuana on the side.

Compulsive homemaker Cecilia launches her surprise visit by cleaning up the mess in the walk-up apartment and fixing a home-cooked chicken dinner. She also learns to smoke ``grass'' and is seduced by Doug. In other words, ``Juno's Swans'' is a permissive 1980s version of a traditional urban comedy.

The sisterly reconciliation achieved by Cary and Cecilia earns ``Juno's Swans'' credit as a small triumph of affection in a naughty world. (The title alludes to a line from ``As You Like It.'') Miss Kerr's humor evolves naturally from character and situation, and Miss Mason's personable cast knows how to handle both.

The picturesque disarray of Kate Edmunds's setting earns its intended bad-housekeeping seal of approval. The Frances Aronson lighting is thoughtfully timed to provide illumination for Cary's horticulture. Ann Roth's costumes range from all-out freaky to conventional chic. Considering the crucial importance of the play's telephonic communications, New York Telephone might receive a program credit, too. Through June 9.

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