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A Revival of ‘A Day in the Death of Joe Egg’ Opens Off-Broadway

January 7, 1985

NEW YORK (AP) _ The only way Bri and Sheila can cope with their disintegrating marriage and their spastic vegetable of a child is with a large helping of humor.

That humor illuminates Peter Nichols’ ″A Day in the Death of Joe Egg,″ which was revived Sunday at the Roundabout Theater’s temporary home in the Fashion Institute of Technology. Despite its bleak subject matter, the play is an enormously funny and moving experience.

When it was first presented on Broadway in 1968, ″Joe Egg″ starred Albert Finney and Zena Walker. This time around, off-Broadway’s Roundabout is fortunate to have two stellar performers - Jim Dale and Stockard Channing - in the lead roles.

Dale plays Bri, an immature, insecure secondary school teacher who masks his anxieties behind a court jester facade. His wife, Sheila, Ms. Channing’s role, joins the masquerade, partly because she genuinely loves Bri and partly because there is no other way of staying sane and taking care of their 12- year-old daughter, nicknamed ″Joe Egg.″

Joe Egg, described clinically by one doctor as ″a spastic with a damaged cerebral cortex,″ is totally helpless, and it’s her parents who must provide most of the love and care. They do it, but she eventually becomes more than just an oppressive offspring to her guilt-ridden parents. Joe Egg is a symbol of what went wrong with their marriage.

During a strong first act, the story of the child’s birth and the subsequent discovery of her abnormalities is told in a series of asides by the two parents to the audience. Nichols creates several vaudeville turns that give Dale a chance to show off his music hall training. Dale brilliantly burlesques two doctors - an incompetent general practioner who can’t seem to remember his patients’ names and a pediatrician with a thick German accent.

He also does a hilarious job as the comforting vicar telling the distressed mother that perhaps God allowed the child’s disease and infirmity to ″exist as a stimulus to research.″

But the laughter is mixed with heartbreak. In the evening’s best speech, Ms. Channing tells of her hope that, despite Joe Egg’s condition, there might be some signs of intelligence in the child.

Act 2 is more conventional, with the arrival of friends Freddie and Pam and later, Bri’s mother, Grace. They are three expert cameos brought to life by Gary Waldhorn, Joanna Gleason and Margaret Hilton. Freddie is a well-meaning Socialist who urges them to try again to have ″a real baby″ and if all else fails, to consider adoption. Pam finds it difficult to confront Joe Egg, especially since she considers herself someone who can’t stand anything ″N.P.A.″ - non-physically attractive.

Mother Grace blames her daughter-in-law’s side of the family for Joe Egg and is more concerned about the sweater she has knitted for the girl than the child itself.

In 1981, Ms. Channing appeared in a revival of the play directed by Arvin Brown at the Long Wharf Theater in New Haven, Conn. Brown repeats his assignment here, as does Tenney Walsh who gives an unnerving performance as the brain-damaged little girl.

Brown had his work cut out for him on the FIT auditorium stage, which is especially inhospitable to plays as intense as this one, but he surmounts the problem admirably. The director succeeds in reaching audiences on all sides of the house without forcing the actors into obvious crossovers on the wide playing area. He’s helped immeasurably by Marjorie Bradley Kellogg’s comfortably worn living room set and Ronald Wallace’s lighting.

But it’s not hard for an audience to be entranced by a play as well-made and as well-acted as this one. ″A Day in the Death of Joe Egg″ is a special evening in the theater.

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