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‘Carnal Knowledge’ by Jules Feiffer Opens Off-Broadway

November 20, 1990 GMT

NEW YORK (AP) _ In his cartoons, Jules Feiffer is a master at analyzing relationships between men and women.

He can capture the peculiarities of their anxieties with a few words and a few frenzied line drawings. What’s more, his observations are scalpel-sharp, very funny and quick to the point.

But the writer runs into trouble trying to extend those observations into a whole evening of theater. That was the problem with his last play, ″Elliott Loves,″ and it is the problem with ″Carnal Knowledge,″ an older Feiffer work that became a well-known Mike Nichols movie some 20 years ago.

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Now the stage version finally has arrived in New York, opening Monday at off-Broadway’s tiny, 99-seat Kaufman Theater, and it’s a tedious evening of theater.

″Carnal Knowledge″ - the play - seems like a darker, more morose version of one of Feiffer’s fine comic strips but stretched beyond endurance. It flattens the actors and exhausts the audience.

The 1971 film version starred Jack Nicholson, Art Garfunkel, Candice Bergen and Ann-Margret. This production has the lure of three young stars - Jon Cryer, Judd Nelson and Justine Bateman plus one newcomer, Karen Byers - in pivotal roles. None is shown to good advantage, particularly in a disastrous second act.

″Carnal Knowledge″ covers a nearly 20-year period, following two Amherst College graduates from the late 1940s into the swinging ’60s. The play is at its best in the opening scenes when the two college students - Sandy, played by Cryer and Jonathan, played by Nelson - solemnly discuss the mysteries of women and more specifically, sex.

″Are you going to let your wife work?″ goes one discussion. ″Is it better to love or be loved?″ goes another.

Sandy is a naive romantic, Jonathan a cynical lout whose vision of women never gets much beyond the bedroom. Sandy meets Susan, a woman who ends up being much too smart for him but who eventually is bedded by Jonathan.

Act 2 jumps nearly 20 years, but the two lead actors don’t seem to age at all. The baby-faced Cryer, who is quite affecting in the first act as the innocent Sandy, looks completely out of place after intermission as an older, successful doctor who does marry Susan and has three children.

Nelson’s character is more intriguing, but the actor’s performance doesn’t vary. Jonathan’s repulsive, one-note treatment of women eventually becomes boring and Nelson emphasizes that relentless quality. Justine Bateman gives a zombie-like performance as Susan, and when the woman disappears after the first act, she isn’t missed.

But the women who replace her in the lives of Sandy and Jonathan - a neurotic model played by Karen Byers and an aggressive, mannish girlfriend played stridently by Mimi Quillin - are even less sympathetic. The evening degenerates into a series of unhappy conversations between two unhappy men about their unhappy love lives.

The bare-bones evening, directed by Martin Charnin, has the feel of a glorified workshop production. The setting is minimal, except for an unnecessary turntable that spins around several times for no discernable reason on the small stage.

Charnin uses his actors remarkably well, with the action shifting very quickly from conversation to conversation. But the problem with ″Carnal Knowledge″ is that what these characters are talking about isn’t very interesting in the first place.