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The Radical Mystique

Though Josie and Janice have been best friends since their days at Sarah Lawrence, it soon becomes clear how little they know one another. It also becomes clear how little Josie knows her husband, Tad (Kevin O'Rourke), and 17 -year-old son, Parker (Oren J. Sofer), a longhair who has been known to skip classes at Dalton in order to take part in antiwar rallies.

Though Josie and Janice have been best friends since their days at Sarah Lawrence, it soon becomes clear how little they know one another. It also becomes clear how little Josie knows her husband, Tad (Kevin O’Rourke), and 17 -year-old son, Parker (Oren J. Sofer), a longhair who has been known to skip classes at Dalton in order to take part in antiwar rallies.

The agent of all this change is just that, an agent of the FBI who may or may not be named Merriwell (Jake Weber), who can turn from unctuous to sinister on a dime, and who can also announce with utter confidence that Anton Chekhov wrote “War and Peace.”

By play’s end, Josie not only discovers that Tad is homosexual, but that Parker is as well, having joined the self-described “Judy people” during the Stonewall riots that occurred the evening of Judy Garland’s funeral and which gave birth to the modern gay liberation movement.

Add to that Janice’s own sexual awakening in an affair with a Panther, and the antisemitism revealed when she confesses to Josie her disapproval of her 17 -year-old son’s affair not because the woman is more than twice his age, nor because she is about to bear him twins, but because she’s Jewish. Laurents lets all these themes and variations unfold with the deft hand of a veteran, and to his credit, the satire never devolves into mean-spiritedness. A real sympathy is at work here.

If “Radical Mystique” is a comedy of manners that bogs down under so many weighty elements, its second drawback is that the author is apparently unwilling to have anyone else stage his work, and that’s a shame. A very strong cast — Fisher is wonderful, particularly in a closing speech — nonetheless seems adrift. A stronger hand on the tiller could have made a more persuasive case for the play.

Nevertheless, Laurents has bravely recaptured a time — and a reformist sensibility — that was long ago ceded to cynics and revisionists. As one who was exactly Parker Gruenwald’s age in 1969 — and for whom the year included almost as many awakenings — I’m glad to have them back.

The Radical Mystique

(City Center Stage II, New York; 150 seats; $ 30)

Production: A Manhattan Theater Club presentation of a play in two acts written and directed by Arthur Laurents. Set, Thomas Lynch; costumes, Theoni V. Aldredge; lighting, Kenneth Posner; sound, Bruce Ellman; production stage manager, Sandra Lea Carson; casting, Nancy Piccione; production manager, Michael R. Moody; associate artistic director, Michael Bush; general manager, Victoria Bailey. Artistic director, Lynne Meadow; managing director, Barry Grove. Opened, reviewed June 6, 1995, at City Center Stage II. Running time: 2 hours. Josie Gruenwald ... Mary Beth Fisher Janice Catlett ... Sharon Washington Parker Gruenwald ... Oren J. Sofer Tad Gruenwald ... Kevin O'Rourke Merriwell ... Jake Weber The Manhattan Theater Club continues to score in its second stage space, following up the recent "Three Viewings" with veteran Arthur Laurents' bristling, humane meditation on 1969 and the roiling spring of our discontent. As its title implies, "The Radical Mystique" marks a heartfelt, but nonetheless comical, attempt to embrace the many social upheavals that criss-crossed paths that year. If it's not always successful, an excess of ideas is hardly the worst offense a playwright can make. The central action is the planning of a party given by a white downtown socialite and a black Upper East Sider for the Black Panthers. The hostesses, Josie Gruenwald (Mary Beth Fisher) and Janice Catlett (Sharon Washington), discuss the guest list, dropping names -- Tom Wicker, Felicia "without Lenny," Carter and Amanda Burden, the Lumets -- meant to draw a straight line to Tom Wolfe's famous skewering of the selfsame subject in "Radical Chic." But where Wolfe made sport of these easy targets, Laurents manages to portray them as sincerely motivated even while sending up their foibles and exposing their not-always eleemosynary motivations.

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