American Playhouse: `Blue Window' PBS, Monday, 9-10:30 p.m., check local listings. Play by Craig Lucas. Like a delicate musical composition, this fragile but telling play weaves the strands of casual party talk into compassionate glimpses of seven people at a party. They are single, emotionally isolated, and reaching out for understanding. Before the evening is out, the production has not only captured the rhythm of their speech, but the rhythm of their lives.
``Blue Window'' - which had a seven-month Off Broadway run and has played in regional theaters - is pure New York. The cocktail party patter is jaunty, slightly fatalistic, with a feeling of guests being comrades in arms against the city and against an impersonalized life. But the way these people come together at Libby's apartment - and almost relate - rings with the more widely familiar sound of detached lives and a quest for meaning. Its a marvelous capturing of a bull session: everyone breaking off ``weighty'' talk with nervous quips to make sure no one thinks he's taking himself too seriously.
The production's impact is due in large part to the happy combination of Norman Ren'e's brilliant direction and a wonderfully skilled cast whose low-key style is just right. Less confident and expert hands would have been tempted to pep up the talky script with ``striking'' readings. By avoiding such intrusiveness, the company is much more penetrating in its characterizations. Randy Danson makes Libby a sensitive portrait of a wounded, insecure woman for whom the party is a harrowing test. By the time Libby loses a tooth, it's a small identity crisis. And when she recounts - with frightening tranquillity - the tragedy from her past that explains her present, it's as if she's telling of a sick relative.
Like ``Quartermaine's Terms'' - a recently aired PBS drama laid in a British school for adults - ``Blue Window'' outlines the shape of loneliness and personal trauma beneath the conversation's defensive phrasing and intellectual bantering. In ``Quartermaine,'' the trouble lurked well below the surface. In ``Blue Window'' it is up front. You can hear it in the way Margo Skinner as Alice dominates the talk and in the sad spectacle of ego disintegration as the party's drinking gets heavy. Alice - a writer who has come with her lover, a woman named Boo - seems only half aware that while she's guiding the politely attentive group through a philosophical point, she's also guiding herself through personal uncertainties. As her long media and literary analysis goes on, it becomes the matrix for the main ingredient - the developing reactions of individuals. The group tends to laugh off anything penetrating, excusing bons mots with an apologetic laugh
Seven is the right number of characters - big enough for a skilled playwright like Craig Lucas to create a mini-world, small enough to give you an emotional close-up of individuals. The play's structure deftly blends this feeling of separateness and society, and the direction captures it with dazzling flexibility, hopping from face to face and back to the group, never obtrusive but nimbly responsive to the party's shifting tone. At the beginning, the production shows guests getting ready for the party simultaneously, and the camera effectively splices shots of them without making a technical stunt out of it.
At the party, in one especially good effect, a woman named Emily goes off to one side, is seen in silhouette, then startlingly breaks into a lonely ballad about how she came to the city and discovered that the freedom she sought has turned out to be unconnectedness. After the guests have left, the play views them in a adroitly created mosaic that is sometimes stressful - like the explicit love quarrel of Alice and Boo - and sometimes poetic. The ``after'' scenes heighten the characters' individual identities, yet make them seem less apart than when they were together.