When Des McAnuff took on the artistic directorship of the La Jolla Playhouse three years ago, hopes virtually soared for San Diego area theater, which until then had relied almost exclusively on the Old Globe for its good health.
Now, three years later, McAnuff has not only fulfilled anticipation by doing the unexpected work everyone expected him to do (with stimulating if mixed results), but he brought exceptional artists to La Jolla--among them Peter Sellars, Randy Newman, Bill Irwin, Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine.
He also has given a city unaccustomed to radical innovation a definite appetite for this new kind of fare. In addition, he's become an analogous rather than a competing force with the more traditional Globe--and has renewed his contract in La Jolla for another three years, also expanding his season to five shows. Set for this summer:
--A new jazz musical ("Shout Up a Morning," with a score by Nat and Cannonball Adderley);
--A play new to the West Coast ("Gillette," by William Hauptman who will be in residence and who did the Tony award-winning book to the La Jolla Playhouse's Broadway hit, "Big River");
--The American premiere of Odon von Horvath's "Figaro Gets a Divorce," translated by Roger Downey, to be directed by Robert Woodruff who staged Brecht's "A Man's a Man" last summer;
--"The Three Cuckolds," a commedia dell'arte classic for clown Bill Irwin (who had played Galey Gay, the leading role in "Man's a Man").
"We had gone to Bill with Galey Gay," McAnuff said Monday from New York, where he's rehearsing the road company for "Big River."
"This time we wanted to give Bill a clean sheet. The project was initiated from conversations we've been having since last summer.
"It's important to see him play the major clown roles."
No director has been set, but Woodruff, who worked with Irwin last year, will be busy with the von Horvath play, a sort of sequel to "The Marriage of Figaro." As for the fifth show, all McAnuff allows is that it will be a classic.
"We're trying to stick to the philosophy of not announcing until we know the artists involved, no matter how tempting it is to put a title on the subscription brochure."
And why five plays?
"The plan to go to five plays has been around for a couple of years. We even talked about it for the '85 season, but decided against it because of the scope of the productions (we did). We'd like to maintain five and maybe expand to seven or eight, which would most likely involve another space (on campus). The facility is still not complete, if we're to have proper office space and design studios."
Would he care to talk about the two shows he himself will stage?
"Absolutely! The pieces look at America from different angles. The musical ("Shout Up a Morning") will be a very new experience. I've worked a lot with music, different kinds of music, but this will be the first time I'll have worked with jazz. Where 'Big River' was a white cast with a few black actors, this is mainly a black cast with a few white actors. It's also going to be a really big show. Mythic."
"Gillette," described as the comic adventures of two blue collar dreamers in Gillette, Wyo., was premiered at the American Repertory Theatre, but, said McAnuff, "This is an expanded version. Originally it was in three acts, now it's in two, with more scenes in each act. It takes place at the beginning of the Reagan years, when there were slightly different dreams. It has a genuine working class point of view--a lot of grit.
"We all think this is among (Hauptman's) finest work. I'd love to go on with that play, do another production, maybe in New York. I see a long term involvement."
Yet, even though New York is never far from the McAnuff consciousness, neither is La Jolla.
"This is for me the beginning of the second phase. Susan (his wife, actress Susan Berman) and I have made up our minds that we want to make a real commitment to Southern California. I want to be in the middle of the sort of boom that is clear will go on here for a while. Why not? Let's make it happen!"
BLOOD AND WATER: Producer Madeline Puzo has announced Mimi Seton's "See Below Middle Sea" and Ron Hutchinson's "Rat in the Skull" as the next two projects for the Taper, Too.
The Seton piece (a look at undersea life conceived, composed and directed by her) was workshopped last fall in the Taper's "In the Works: 1985." But the Hutchinson play is another kettle of fish: It takes a thoroughly unsentimental look at the blood feuds in Northern Ireland. "See Below Middle Sea" runs March 21 to April 13; "Rat" plays May 16 to June 8.
FLAGGING A NEW SPACE: "The Wonder Years," designated as "A Baby Boom Musical Revue," will be launching a new Equity cabaret theater when it opens in the Academy Room of the Roosevelt Hotel April 30. Music and lyrics are by David Levy. Book is by Levy, David Holdgrive, Steve Liebman and Terry LaBolt.
The "Wonder," by the way, is wonder as in the bread . . .