TWO WEEKS ago, the message that nobody on Broadway ever wants to see went up on the snow-splattered billboards of New York's Lyceum Theater. CLOSING, read the legend pasted across the signs for "Grown Ups," Jules Feiffer's new play.
Predictably the playwright was demoralized, the actors were disappointed. But then, as word got out that the play -- described by its author as "from the beginning . . . a risky venture" -- was closing just five weeks after it opened, the box office was besieged with requests for tickets, and the producers, encouraged by newly sold-out houses, decided to give the play a second chance.
"It's a story without precedent in the modern theater," says Feiffer excitedly now. "A play that was a commercial flop a couple of days ago suddenly is in danger of serious revival, and might even become a hit."
Feiffer is no stranger to the harsh realities of theater on Broadway. The bald and bespectacled guru of personal and political cartoon satire is 52 now. He has been writing plays -- seven of them -- since 1966 when he entered the theatrical arena with "Little Murders." He had wanted to write for the stage before then, but feared that his angry, personal, outspoken view of the world wouldn't be commercial.
Most of the time, he has been right.
"I always assumed that if I wrote anything I really liked, it would close in a week," says Feiffer, whose most successful Broadway play, "Knock Knock," lasted almost six months in 1976. "I really liked 'Little Murders,' and it closed in a week. But by that time the addiction had set in, and I had to pursue this career of masochism."
"One of the reasons I wanted to go into the theater was that I thought my cartoons were becoming too acceptable," he explains. "I wasn't as dangerous as I thought I would have to be in order to do my work. If doing social and political satire on the American system can get you applause, and papers don't cancel you any more I figured that's a form of corruption, and I'd better do something about it. Thank God I was rejected."
Jules Feiffer's conversation is still peppered with words like masochism, guilt, rejection and rage. They conjure up a vision of the late 1950s and early 1960s kind of self-absorption that produced his now-familiar stable of cartoon regulars, characters like:
* Bernard Mergendeiler, Feiffer's some-time alter ego, the anxiety-ridden eternal bachelor (that is, until Feiffer married him off a couple of years ago).
* Munro, the 4-year-old who was drafted by mistake into the "ignorant and authoritarian and boorish and racist" atmosphere of the U.S. Army. ("Munro," which Feiffer wrote while he was in the Army, would become his first cartoon satire.)
* The legion of four-star neurotics who have agonized weekly in newspapers and magazines across the country, and all through the collections of his work that started in 1958 with "Sick, Sick, Sick."
* The dancer, the longest run and perhaps most abstract of all of Feiffer's characters, who as she expanded and contracted, reflected her creator's personal tug-of-war between optimism and despair. The symbolic nature of the dancer and her ability to mirror the discomforts of a generation has become a kind of signature for Feiffer.
After all, if anything has propelled him over the years, it has been a basic anger. It didn't matter whether he was poking fun at presidents or embodying a generation of neurotics in his drawings. He never intended just to be funny.
And "Grown Ups," at times a very funny play about how the members of one Jewish-American family wreak havoc upon each other in the name of love, has been difficult for some theatergoers. Like Feiffer, there is a basic anger at its root, and like life it has no happy ending.
Its hero, Jake, is a reporter who seems to have everything: a successful career at The New York Times, a good wife and a precocious daughter, parents who thrill to his every accomplishment. He is even writing an important book about "the moral and ethical disintegration of the American dream."
But over the year that the play traces, his dream of a life reveals its storm-cloud lining: The wife is afraid he will leave her, the daughter shows signs of becoming a tyrant; the parents are constitutionally unable to accept him as he is, and -- most threatening of all -- he is unhappy in his job.
By the play's third act, the cloud has burst open and laid bare the family feelings they had all struggled to contain and, by the final curtain, everybody feels just awful.
Feiffer has not been surprised by his play's struggle to survive.
"I was amazed it wasn't even worse," he says. "There simply is no longer a tradition of serious American plays having a place on Broadway. The ones that make it are few and far between, and they are usually about a terminal illness that an audience can distance itself from.
"I don't believe in neat plays or neat art. I think that one of the things that makes theater boring is that rather than represent life as it is, it represents a nice, neatly contained lie.
"It's a terrible irony," he reflects. "I want success as much as any other American. I want applause. I want to be a celebrity. I wanted to say all these terrible things about other Americans, but I want to rub their noses in it and have them love me for it. It's taken me years to realize that it's not supposed to happen that way, that it's not written into the contract."
"Grown Ups" is the most autobiographical of Feiffer's plays, and grew out of his reaction to his mother's death in 1974. Much to his surprise, and after what he describes as "85 years of analysis where I had worked out my feelings toward her . . . it threw me into a state of agitation and near-collapse. I fell ill for weeks with severe bronchitis and fever. And through it all, the irony and the humor of the situation were clear to me: It meant that I am totally ignorant about what goes on inside myself."
Unable to concentrate on the novel he was working on, Feiffer felt he had to "exorcize the ghosts." "Grown Ups" comes directly out of his attempt to recreate his experience with his parents.
Within a month he had done a first draft, but was dissatisfied. He dove into his files and fished out all the letters he had saved from his parents over the years, and "reacquainted myself with their voices." Slowly he absorbed their phrasing, their speech patterns, and wrote a second draft.
As he always does when he finishes a play, he then read it back onto a cassette recorder. ("I just want the words to defend themselves," he explains.)
"And what I heard coming back to me in my monotone were my parents voices exactly. It thrilled me because it was as though I had brought them back from the dead."
Witness a scene from the first act between Jake and his parents, Jack and Helen -- its dialogue riddled with guilt and love, and a cadence he remembers from his childhood:
Helen: Haven't we heard enough? He's a dynamo, my son. The day you got the job, the excitement in your voice when you told us over the telephone. Dad and I sat up half the night in the kitchen toasting your success with glasses of milk. We were big shots! Our son on The New York Times!
Jack: When are we going to see you?
Jake: You're seeing me right now.
Jack: Don't be a wise guy. When are you coming to visit? I have hopes of seeing my granddaughter before I die.
Jake: Dad, whenever I see you, you ask when am I going to see you. I really don't know what you want. You want me to move back in. You know how often most other sons visit their parents?
Jack: I didn't know there was a standard.
Jake: Look, I'm here. We're together. Let's try to enjoy it.
Jack: I'd enjoy it if I could for once see my granddaughter.
FEIFFER fits writing plays into a loosely knit schedule that includes his weekly cartoons, other writing projects and "the shopping, the dog-walking, the telephone and the mail." He has been turning out his cartoons, those satirical shrieks of his generation, since 1956 when -- after some years of rejection by New York editors -- they first began appearing in the Village Voice. "I had an enormous arrogance based on no evidence whatever that once I got into print I'd be on my way," he recalls.
He, and they, have been successful ever since, an unsettling situation for the satirist and social commentator.
A self-described "liberal-radical or radical-liberal with a strong conservative streak," Feiffer lives on New York's Upper West Side in a large and unmanicured apartment with just a few of the perquisites of success -- a living room furnished with an oriental carpet and sofas of complementary tones, an over-size leather chair, a large abstract painting. Typically wearing jeans and an ordinary shirt or sweater, he works at a drawing board in a back room where he can see both the Empire State Building and the Hudson River. "I never was able to tolerate an office because it's too far away from my bed," he says.
Divorced some years ago, he has lived with two different women during the past 11 years, and currently shares his life with a woman he has lived with for a year and a half as well as a Lhasa Apso named Pasha he inherited from his 18-year-old daughter. "My state seems to be monogamous, but unmarriageable," he laughs helplessly.
Without the pressures of daily deadlines, he prefers to keep no particular regime. "I'm usually up early at 6 or 6:30, and if I'm smart I'll force myself out of bed and work." He describes his routine as "orderly in terms of effect, but the surface detail looks like it's made up of pure slob content." The most routine parts of his life are twice-daily walks with Pasha, twice-weekly visits to the same psychiatrist he has been seeing for years ("She says we've grown old together"), and his cartoons.
"The cartoon doesn't care whether I'm depressed or not, or in a mood or not, or whether I feel like working or not. That thing has to get done, which means I have to come up with an idea, which means that at least mentally I have to get out of bed."
These days, an additional task is a collection of a quarter century's worth of his political drawings and cartoons -- from Eisenhower to Reagan -- which he is compiling and writing as a celebration of his 26-year connection with the Village Voice.
Although he has never shown any president particular mercy on the drawing board -- "I actually don't like any of these guys, no matter who they are" -- he finds it takes him nine months to a year until he is satisfied with his drawings. "I always go after some kind of fictive understanding of the character, what makes them tick. I want him to be speaking basically from his own point of view, which I am satirizing."
As a result, he has only just begun to feel comfortable with his caricature of Ronald Reagan, a man whose social policies agitate him. "The Reagan administration makes me angrier than I have been in a long time," he says. "The proud intolerance of these guys, the complacency and the arrogance. There's no defense for inhuman human behavior, for such a pretense of style and behind it such little civility. They give you so much material that I'm drowning in riches."
At a couple of points in the last 25 years, Feiffer has had difficulty aiming his pen. "There were about five minutes when I thought Jimmy Carter was going to be all right, and I was very worried," he deadpans. "And I was basically toothless for the first nine months of Lyndon Johnson, because I thought he was terrific. When he became a war criminal, he released my talent. It was fun because it was unbridled rage."
Richard Nixon, in some ways, delighted Feiffer. "He was a bigger, badder Nixon than I ever could have hoped. As awful as he was, he was a joy to go after."
There is, however, a specter of one particular kind of government that makes him brood. "If a truly benevolent government came into office, and began to work on the problems of poverty and racism and other basic injustices, then I'd really have to go back to work," he says.
In the meantime, there is plenty to fret about -- the relentless rhythm of producing his cartoons, the Reagan administration, the staging of another of his plays which is scheduled for this spring, and of course, the fate of "Grown Ups," currently expected to continue at least through Feb. 20.
"If we can just last through the month, that's when the good period starts," he says dubiously. "It seems to me whenever I open a play, it's a bad audience period, and that turns out to be any time of year."
"I would say the odds are still somewhat weighted against us," he says, turning serious. "But it's certainly been worth the effort . . . it's terrific for Broadway plays with serious content to find an audience.
"At least there's a real chance."