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Lewis Puts Pro Skills Into 'Kean'

February 19, 1986|LYNNE HEFFLEY

As an 11-time Wimbledon official, Arthur Lewis was described in the British press as having the "all-seeing eyes of a lynx." But this founder-member of the British Umpires' Assn. has other interests. He's a director-producer-writer whose film, television and theater experience spans decades--and two continents.

His stage credits include "Funny Girl" with Barbra Streisand in London, "The Boy Friend" with Julie Andrews on Broadway and last year's star-studded "A Tribute to Edwin Lester" at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles.

Lewis has now turned his attention to community theater. He will direct Jean Paul Sartre's "Kean," adapted from the play by Alexandre Dumas and based on the life of the 19th-Century English tragedian Edmund Kean. The play, translated by Frank Hauser, opens Thursday at the Laguna Moulton Playhouse and runs through March 16.

"It's a beautifully written play, a symphony of words," Lewis said, "and one of the great tour de forces for an actor. I don't know why it hasn't been done more often.

"What interested me about the play is that it contains so many layers of truths. Kean is a tumbler, a mime, a clown, but worst of all, he is an actor. He can't become a member of Parliament, he can't fight a nobleman. It has nothing to do with money. An impoverished aristocrat still has an edge on a wealthy middle-class person."

Having lived in England, American-born Lewis is aware of the critical importance of the class system that was ultimately so destructive to Edmund Kean, who was a prince on the stage, a "play toy" for royalty offstage, but bitterly aware of his non-person status.

Lewis agrees that it's hard for Americans to understand a true class society but doesn't think his audience will have a problem understanding the play.

"It's amusing; it has wonderful language and the characters, all of them, are very rich. Each character is terribly confused, they all want something they can't have.

"Kean is tortured by two things. He knows he can never be a part of the lives of the people who want to be involved with Kean the actor but not Kean the man. And his own life has become homogenized. He never knows when he's Kean. He might be Othello, Hamlet or Lear."

Lewis is intimately familiar with legendary figures in theater. His father, the son of Lithuanian immigrants, started in vaudeville and later went into partnership with Max Gordon. Lewis and Gordon produced vaudeville and legitimate theater, giving early exposure to playwrights such as Eugene O'Neill and Owen Davis.

Lewis grew up meeting the stars of the day and taking them pretty much for granted. "George Gershwin would come to our house for brunch and play our Steinway all day long. We didn't pay much attention--everybody'd be playing Ping-Pong or something. Larry Hart, Paul Muni, Eddie Cantor, Sophie Tucker--I accepted their visits as the norm."

Lewis has divided his time between the United States and England ever since he came to London in 1953 to produce and direct "Guys and Dolls" with Vivian Blaine and Sam Levene. His two sons, a surgeon and a corporate executive, of whom Lewis is very proud, still live there with their families.

He came back to the United States six years ago to produce "The Killer Elite" with James Caan and Robert Duvall and stayed on for other projects, including two recent NBC television movies, "The Diary of Anne Frank" and "Splendor in the Grass," both featuring Melissa Gilbert.

Lewis and his wife live in peaceful, green Laguna Niguel in a home filled with light, color and art. "I discovered I liked the suburban atmosphere." (Lewis grew up in New York, and was educated at the University of Southern California and the Yale School of Drama.) "My wife paints (her work hangs on the walls of their home) and is very involved with the Laguna Beach Museum of Art. We both became active in community affairs through that. And that's how I met Doug Rowe."

Rowe, artistic director of the Laguna Moulton Playhouse, asked Lewis if he would be willing to do a play. Lewis said there was one play that had never had much exposure in America.

When Rowe read "Kean," he was eager to do it--and to play the lead.

Community theater is a new experience for Lewis. "I'm so pleased with the performances I'm getting. I conducted the auditions as though it was a West End or Broadway production and people turned up from all over Orange County. We wound up with a wonderful, professional cast."

(The cast includes Rowe, Cynthia Walker, Adair Williams, Ralph Richmond, Jennifer Pajor, Dennis O'Donnell and Frank Ballotta.)

Lewis has respect for the possibilities of community theater, seeing its limitations in a positive way.

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