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Books On Theater Make Dramatic Holiday Gifts

December 21, 1986|DAN SULLIVAN

The best Christmas gift for the theater person on your list is two tickets to the best show in town--as long as you know your friend's tastes. I know a man who thinks Lily Tomlin's "The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life" at the Doolittle is superficial.

In such a case, a theater book is safer. If your friend doesn't like it, at least he or she won't have to waste an entire evening. And you will have had the pleasure of an advance leaf-through.

Theater books are bulkier than ever this year. An example is Mary C. Henderson's "Theater in America: 200 Years of Plays, Players and Productions" (Abrams: $45). The size of this package permits some thrilling picture layouts. It's one thing to see a standard-size photo of Jo Mielziner's original set for "Death of a Salesman." The double-page spread here allows us virtually to wander out on the set, with some of the awe the original actors must have felt.

Henderson, a former curator of the Museum of the City of New York's theater collection, also provides a well-informed account of the American theater (not just the New York theater) from Colonial days to the present. But it's a cumbersome book to hold for more than a half-hour. Reading a book is not supposed to be pumping iron.

Daniel Blum's and John Willis' "A Pictorial History of the American Theater" (Crown: $25.95) is all photos, some 6,000 of them, going back to 1860. Most of the photos are on the small side, but there are some full-length shots that suggest the allure of yesterday's great ladies of the stage--Cornell in "The Barretts of Wimpole Street," for example.

This book does confuse the American theater with the New York theater. If you'd like to get a quick visual scan of the 1927 Broadway season (268 shows, still a record), this is your book. If you're looking for early shots of the Pasadena Playhouse, or even the Provincetown Playhouse, you're out of luck.

Jonathan Miller's "Subsequent Performances" (Viking: $25) is a real book, dressed up like the cof- fee-table variety. We don't need its reproductions of old-master paintings and diagrams of optical illusions to follow Miller's argument that a theater text is by nature "indeterminate," never to be wholly resolved, always available to new readings.

Miller even argues that a play's true life is its afterlife--what happens to it after it has recovered from its original production and can reassume its true identity as a word system, for which new behavior must be invented.

The behavior must match the words to an extent. But the traditional approach to any character, the traditional reading of any line, can be challenged. Indeed, Miller recommends this approach to directors as a good point of departure in re-examining the whole play. Why does Portia have to coo "The quality of mercy is not strained"? Why can't she say it impatiently, as if it's something that ought to be clear to every adult in the courtroom?

"Subsequent Performances" would be a good book for a young director, not just because Miller so ably defends "director's theater," but because he gives sound advice about dealing with actors. Don't overwhelm them with your ideas about the play. Watch them. Listen to them. Let them make their own discoveries. And remember that the real gains often occur between rehearsals.

Laurence Olivier's "On Acting" (Simon & Schuster: $18.95) is for the young actor who wants to make 'em forget Laurence Olivier. Olivier understands perfectly. He was out to make 'em forget Irving, and he tells what it took to do so: high talent, calculated ambition and an obsessive need to get the bloody thing right.

He tells us how he built his famous roles: Hamlet, Othello, Richard III. Each time, he would go after the man rather than trying to discover the man in himself. When the painting was complete, he would add spontaneity. ("It is hard to achieve, so I always put it in last.")

In performance the feeling would be: "I am Othello . . . but Olivier is in charge." But when hit by a massive case of stage-fright in the 1970s, the feeling was agony. This is one one tough book, making it clear how ruthless--and good--an actor has to be to take the heavyweight crown.

Chekhov is the inspiration for a charming book that won't strain anybody's back or pocketbook. "Orchards" (Knopf: $9.95 paperback) combines seven Chekhov stories and seven shortplays written in response to them by Maria Irene Fornes, Spalding Gray, John Guare, David Mamet, Wendy Wasserstein, Michael Weller and Samm-Art Williams.

Mamet does a tight, expert dramatization of the card game in "Vint." Guare turns the sled in "A Joke" into a hang-glider but retains the cruelty of the young man's practical joke on the girl. Williams turns "The Eve of the Trial" into a shaggy-dog story about a "hanging judge" in Baton Rouge, La. Gray lets "The Witch" remind him of a bad day in Hollywood.

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