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Stage Watch : Martin, Channing: Definitely 'Legends'

October 24, 1985|SYLVIE DRAKE | Times Theater Writer

The rumor that had Mary Martin and Carol Channing--legends in their own might--pairing up to do "Legends," a new James Kirkwood play, hardened into fact Tuesday. Channing and Martin will sail into town Feb. 2 in what is now the third show of the Ahmanson season.

This unusual Kirkwood comedy deals with two famous movie stars who hate and despise each other and are offered parts in the same play; both resist and, of course, both desperately need the work.

While this is definitely not art imitating life (the Martin/Channing friendship is well known), it is goodby "Dolly," farewell "Peter Pan" and a long overdue chance to see these legendary performers strut new stuff in non-singing roles.

"The show will open in Dallas," said Ahmanson artistic director Robert Fryer, "and then come to L.A." on its circuitous way to Broadway. The director will be Clifford James.

"We're going outside a traditional way to evaluate. These are all unfinished works. We're not that concerned about the critics writing about the process. We're worried about the how of that."

The speaker was Robert Egan, director of new play development for the Mark Taper Forum, which this week began its monthlong New Theatre for Now, consisting of eight programs: seven new plays and one week of "micro-operas."

"We're asking the press to suspend the traditional critical stance," Egan continued. "We're offering a variety of ways to participate in this: rehearsal visitation, interviews, symposia, the opportunity to get up on the stage in post-play discussions and share in an evaluation with the audience.

"Writers get a little gun shy (about new work), but if the press embraces this evaluative posture, it could be useful."

The developmental process, as Egan described it, has involved close collaboration between writers, directors and actors over a two-week period. There was no formal plea for scripts. Programs were selected from "a little more than 1,000 scripts received over the course of a year" and five of this year's playwrights are Los Angelenos: Doris Baizley ("Mrs. California"), John Shaper ("The Dream Coast"), Mimi Seton ("Sea Below Middle C"), Kendrew Lascelles ("Legends"-- not the Mary Martin/Carol Channing one) and Philip Kan Gotanda ("The Wash").

"We were interested in working with L.A. writers," Egan emphasized. "How does one choose? Usually something excites someone on the reading staff."

That staff is uncommonly abundant at the Taper, with a dramaturge (Jack Viertel), an associate dramaturge (Jessica Teisch) and a literary manager (Bill Storm). Egan and associate producer Madeline Puzo (who oversees the micro-operas) complete this supervisory nucleus.

By July the staff had narrowed down the field of choices and approached the playwrights. Said Egan: "If we agreed on what needed to be done, we went ahead."

For the writer, the work process itself encompassed about 20 hours of conference with a dramaturge and about 12 days of rehearsal.

"Then the designers were brought in," Egan said. "So often, scripts today communicate visually and through design, not just language. After one week we had a rehearsal visitation by the artistic staff--about five people--so playwright and director had some feedback. At the end of the second week they had five hours in the theater to put in design elements."

Each play gets four performances. The most significant element comes at the end: audience response--at the play and in post-show discussion. And then?

"There will be a formal literary meeting the next day after each presentation. And a wrap-up."

And then?

"We're asking for the right of first refusal for 30 days. We're not tying things up in any other way."

For those who like to experiment, tonight's offering is Shaper's "Dream Coast."

Should "Sunday in the Park With George" not make it to Los Angeles, don't despair. It is being taped for TV's "Broadway on Showtime" series, with yet a later PBS airing promised on "American Playhouse."

The videotaped version will feature Mandy Patinkin, Bernadette Peters and most of the original cast under the direction of the exceptional Terry Hughes. Hughes, you may recall, videotaped "Sweeney Todd." Magnificently.

Roger O. Hirson (who wrote the book for "Pippin") is in town for the opening of his new play, "Invitation From the Asylum," at Theatre Three tonight. It's about a man who visits an asylum in which his wife has been a patient for seven years.

"She had tried to kill him with a knife," Hirson explained. "It appears to be a comedy, but I hope it's something else. There's a rather serious story underneath."

Hirson, who spends much of his time writing for television, is the author of the widely praised TV adaptation of "A Christmas Carol" that featured George C. Scott.

CALLBOARD: The Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle is hosting a panel discussion on design at the L.A. Stage West on Saturday, 11 a.m. Panelists are designers Paulie Jenkins (lights), A. Clark Duncan (sets), Charles Berliner (costumes), Jon Gottlieb (sound) and Russell Pyle (lights and sets). The Times' Dan Sullivan will moderate. Admission is free; first come, first served.

Sunday has been designated as John Allison Sunday at the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble where the late director, who died of AIDS on Sept. 26, had staged his final production ("Bashville" in April). Curtain goes up at 1 p.m. on "Voyage to Arcturus" and "The Jail Diary of Albie Sachs," with a reception and brief memorial presentation in the lobby at 4 p.m. Tickets are $20; all proceeds go to AIDS Project/L.A.

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