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STAGE WEEK

'Beirut': The Big Apple as Quarantine Zone

November 01, 1987|JANICE ARKATOV

Promising love-it-or-hate-it reactions, Allan Bowne's "Beirut" has its West Coast debut Saturday at the Matrix.

"It's set somewhere in the near future, after a sexually transmitted disease has wiped out a majority of the population," explained director Jimmy Bohr. "Beirut (a nickname for the Lower East Side of Manhattan) has become a quarantine zone where, if you're tested positive for the plague, you're thrown in to die. Meanwhile, in the outside world, provocative clothing is outlawed and sex is prohibited; (violators) can be executed. There are sex-detector cameras built into every room, every house in the country."

The protagonists are teen-age Torch (played by Jason Patric), who's tested positive for the disease, and his girlfriend Blue (Marisa Tomei), who's tested negative--but nonetheless sneaks into Beirut to be with him, "live out what's left of their lives together. The point is that love is what makes life worth living," Bohr said. "This is about making choices for life, not death. And the themes are universal: making a commitment to another human being, no matter what the obstacles."

Love story aside, Bohr (who's guided the play from workshop beginnings through a successful--though controversial--off-Broadway run last year) has to acknowledge similarities between "Beirut's" unnamed disease and AIDS.

"When Alan wrote this play, AIDS was not really an issue," he said. "And he's always said he didn't write it about AIDS. I don't want to sidestep the obvious connections, but ultimately the play isn't about the disease, but about two people . The plague is a backdrop to the situation, not what it's about. No way are we trying to make a documentary about AIDS. But yes, the subject is frightening, provocative--and parallels will be drawn. We just hope that people will see beyond the obvious."

When TV viewers last saw Charlene Tilton, she was exiting "Dallas" via a reconciliation with ex-hubby Mitch. Now she's taken to the stage, appearing with Jane Kean and Gary Sandy in Larry Shue's "The Foreigner," opening Tuesday at the La Mirada Civic.

"It's a comic farce (set) at a fishing lodge in Tillman, Ga.," said the actress. "A very shy gentleman arrives (pretending) that he can't speak English. And because we think he can't understand us, he hears all kinds of things he shouldn't be privy to."

This staging marks Tilton's second go-around with "The Foreigner"; she played it last year in San Francisco, after producer Charles Duggan--who'd been searching for a "Charlene Tilton type"--decided to go for the real thing.

"Then when I heard they were doing the play here, I called up and said, 'I'd like to do this.' " Any resistance? "At first in San Francisco, I think they were questioning, 'What is this TV person doing on stage?' Luckily it worked--we got great reviews. But in this business, you've really got to prove yourself at every level. And if you want to work, you've got to go after it; nothing's handed to you." As for shedding an established image, " 'Dallas' is always going to be there," she said. "But I'm young--and hopefully, in time, people will see there's more there."

CRITICAL CROSSFIRE: Dario Fo's quixotic comedy, "Elisabeth: Almost by Chance a Woman" recently opened at the Los Angeles Theatre Center.

Fo's theme, said The Times' Dan Sullivan, "is something about how absolute power can drive a ruler crazy, particularly if she is a woman and already behind society's eight ball. The real Queen Elizabeth seems to have coped with job stress pretty well, but Fo's Elisabeth is as batty as Norma Desmond by the end of the play and clearly on the way to it at the beginning."

Noted Richard Stayton in the Herald-Examiner: "LATC brought Arturo Corso from Italy to direct because of his 25-year working relationship with Fo. Presumably, Corso's inability to speak English would be overcome by his familiarity with Fo's broad clowning. However, Corso's presentational style resembles didactic Brecht more than political vaudeville."

From F. Kathleen Foley in Drama-Logue: " 'Elisabeth' may not be the most inspired production of Fo you'll ever see, but it is amusing, with the solid underpinnings of intelligent satire that lift it out of the realm of mere farce. It is remarkably contemporary and accessible, with more apt references to the Contragate scandal than could be uncovered by a host of Congressional subcommittees."

Said the Orange County Register's Thomas O'Connor: "LATC's actors are mostly banging their heads--among other anatomical items--against Fo's latest, 'Elisabeth,' a satire drawing parallels between our era and the repression of Elizabethan England. The comedy covers a broad swath of theatrical territory, too broad for this West Coast premiere."

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