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Morning's at Seven

Presented by Lincoln Center Theater at the Lyceum Theatre, 149 W. 45 St., NYC, April 21-June 16.

In this season highlighting mature performers like Elaine Stritch and Bea Arthur, Lincoln Center Theater offers a stageful of veteran actors at the peak of their thespian powers. The vehicle is "Morning's at Seven," Paul Osborn's gentle comedy-drama of four elderly Midwestern sisters. When the play was first performed on Broadway in 1938, its subtle backyard charm failed to catch on and it quickly folded. Then a star-studded revival in 1980 brought a new "Morning" and restored its reputation as a quietly incisive portrayal of alienation and affection among families.

This new LCT production, directed with a masterfully subtle hand by Daniel Sullivan, captures both the humorous joys and lonely ache of small-town life. Frances Sternhagen sweetly puts across the comic conflict of Ida, caught between wanting her 40-year-old bachelor son out of the house and desperate for him to stay. Estelle Parsons clearly and expertly delineates the objective of Cora: a home of her own with husband Thor after sharing one for almost 50 years with her maiden sister, Aaronetta. Elizabeth Franz's face is like a book as Aaronetta. We can read every thought and emotion in the down turned lips and quivering chin. Only Piper Laurie as Esther, the commanding eldest sister, seems tentative in her delivery.

But the play does not totally belong to this quartet of ladies. Christopher Lloyd makes the despair of Ida's husband Carl both touching and funny, William Biff McGuire has quiet dignity as Thor, and Buck Henry keenly displays icy contempt as Esther's condescending spouse. Stephen Tobolowsky and Julie Hagerty are nervous delights as Ida's indecisive son and his equally twitchy ladylove.

John Lee Beatty's magnificent two-house set is so real you can practically smell the grass. Jane Greenwood's costumes are as down-home as apple pie. Brian MacDevitt's lighting sets the time and atmosphere as perfectly as this show captures a slice of life in all its sweetness and pain.

For more reviews, visit the Back Stage website at www.backstage. com.

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