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'Men's Eyes' a Victim of Some Happy Coincidences

November 07, 1987|NANCY CHURNIN

SAN DIEGO — San Diegans have known for a long time that they have theater worth watching. Now the New York Times, the New Yorker and the Christian Science Monitor are waking up and smelling the greasepaint.

In recent articles, these papers have pointed to Broadway imports from San Diego's past (La Jolla Playhouse's "Big River," Romulus Linney's "Holy Ghosts"), present (Stephen Sondheim's "Into the Woods") and future (A.R. Gurney Jr.'s "Another Antigone," Stephen Metcalfe's "Emily" and Lee Blessing's "A Walk in the Woods").

The show that everyone forgets to mention is Potpourri Theatre's revival of John Herbert's "Fortune and Men's Eyes," which opened Oct. 25 to mixed and favorable reviews, at off-Broadway's Actors' Theater. The praise for Herbert's play was universal; the reaction to this version ranged from The new York Times' judgment of "flawed" with moments that are "beautifully realized," to the New York Daily News' pronouncement of the play as "a definite plus in this young season."

Never heard of Potpourri? They're the people who were making all the racket on the floor above Busalacchi's Ristorante in Hillcrest from April 24-May 30. Where do they stand in relation to the other San Diego theaters now playing Broadway? Let's put it this way--Potpourri is to San Diego theater what San Diego theater once was to the larger theater world: A plucky little upstart with big-league dreams and drive.

It all started last year when Ricque Williams was working as a maitre d' at Mission Bay's Bahia Hotel. Williams was a newcomer to San Diego. Years before, he had been an aspiring singer in Los Angeles. He was still itching to do a show. Then he took a walk by a pier with a friend who told him that he had always wanted to play Mona in "Fortune and Men's Eyes."

"Fortune" was a show Williams knew well. When he was 37 and still singing, he got a call in the middle of the night from a now-dead friend, Sal Mineo, then 33.

"I want you to read something," he remembers Mineo telling him.

"But Sal, it's the middle of the night."

"Get your butt out of bed. I'm sending a cab over."

Williams, a slender, youthful 60, towering at 6-foot-7, recalls the incident with soft laughter. "The cab was there before I got dressed. He gave me a thin paperback book. I read it at one sitting. 'I think it's fantastic,' I told him."

"Fortune" is about the emotionally and physically violent life of convicts. Herbert, the playwright, had lived the experience. Mineo told Williams he was going to direct it, and asked Williams if he would stick around to "just be with me--be someone I can bounce ideas off of."

"I was not working," Williams said. "So I just started being with him on a daily basis."

It was when he was with Mineo that Williams began to discover that the desire to "push someone else . . . was more fun than to see my own work."

The same feeling came to him when his San Diego friend told him that he wanted to play the part of Mona. Later, when Williams got a job managing Busalacchi's and found out that the space upstairs (which had once been home to the Triteria Theater) was available for rent. He grabbed it and started hammering on improvements last November.

The carpentry continued until opening night. "The actors and director said I'd never finish in time."

He finished, but his worries weren't over. In the course of rehearsals, the friend who had inspired him to do the play in the first place was dropped as not being right for the part. On opening night, the actor who was supposed to play the guard, a small but crucial part in this five-character play, did not show up.

"We cried," Williams said. The director went on instead.

It was an eerie prefiguring of what happened Oct. 19, the day before the preview when the first New York critics were scheduled to show up: The actor playing the guard was fired. Again, Williams said, this time from his apartment in New York, "We're crying." The associate producer, Carl Jaynes, stood in through review week; he has since been replaced by William McDaniel.

In the midst of his anxiety about losing the actor in New York, he took heart from remembering still another coincidence. Three days before Mineo's production opened, Mineo fired the actor playing Rocky as being unsuitable and had Williams drill him through the nights with Rocky's lines so that Mineo could take over the part.

"Sal taught me an awful lot. He taught me not to waste your time with the fear. He always said you have to wipe your brow and get on with it."

Not only did Williams "get on with it" in San Diego, the resulting show impressed a visiting friend of Williams' enough to make him offer to co-produce it for a New York run.

The friend, Steve Nebken, found financing from the Fortune Society, a national group supportive of the rights of convicts and ex-convicts that had emerged as a direct result of the play's world premiere 20 years before.

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