`Spoils of War': the challenge of trying to reconcile parents

Spoils of War Play by Michael Weller. Directed by Austin Pendleton. ``Spoils of War,'' by Michael Weller, completes the first ``Artist in Perspective'' season at the Second Stage. Revivals of Mr. Weller's ``Moonchildren'' and ``Loose Ends'' preceded the new work. In this bitter comedy, which he has described as ``an emotional autobiography,'' the playwright dramatizes the anguished efforts of a troubled 16-year-old to reconcile his long-estranged parents.

Martin (Christopher Collet) lives in New York with his bohemian mother, Elise (Kate Nelligan) and attends a progressive boarding school. But he has also secretly made contact with his more conventional father, Andrew (Larry Bryggman). The time is the 1950s. Having delivered a prize essay on the cold war and won a scholarship to study in Switzerland, Martin schemes desperately to reunite his parents before taking off. The ultimately disastrous results at a Father's Day party complete the play's intricately developed action.

The irony of the title inheres in the post-World War II dissolution of Elise and Andrew's marriage. The couple met at a leftist commune in the 1930s. In the war's aftermath, however, Andrew has turned right, while Elise's radical commitment has declined into a vague, dilettante liberalism as she pursued a career in the fashion world. Elise is the sort of self-willed dreamer who borrows her best friend's money and also appropriates the friend's pickup male companion. For his part, magazine publisher Andrew appears to fill his life with a succession of much younger women.

Martin shuttles back and forth between his father's and mother's worlds, meanwhile struggling to discover his own identity. Never quite losing courage, candor, or purpose, he winds up exhibiting more maturity than either of his parents. But to no avail. One leaves ``Spoils of War'' hoping the Swiss Alpine air will exert a restorative effect on this emotionally abused child. As a theatrical experience, however, ``Spoils of War'' proves more bleak than moving.

Viewed with objectivity by Weller and responsively portrayed under Austin Pendeleton's direction, the characters nevertheless tend to pall before the play reaches its wrenching climax.

As Martin, Mr. Collet brings a high charge of emotional conviction to the role of the bewildered youngster. In Miss Nelligan's unsparing performance, Elise - with her airy talk, casual opportunism, and surreptitious tippling - becomes merely a tiresome woman. Mr. Bryggman's gung-ho Andrew, through no fault of the actor, is scarcely more tolerable. The remaining 1950s types are believably portrayed by Alice Playten as Elise's loyal, longsuffering friend still true to radical causes, Annette Bening as Andrew's latest live-in girlfriend, and Kevin O'Rourke as a Kansas naif whom Elise steals from Emma and takes to bed.

Kevin Rupnik's three-in-one setting assists the spectator's imagination in moving through the maze of scenes. Ruth Morley's costumes include several spiffy outfits for elegant Miss Nelligan. The production (which runs through June 12) was lighted by Betsy Adams.

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