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Stage Watch

Pasadena Playhouse Sets Its New Season; Jennifer Holliday Gets Back to Gospel

November 12, 1987|SYLVIE DRAKE | Times Theater Writer

On the coattails of its high-flying new musical "Mail," and for the first time since it was sold at auction 17 years ago, the Pasadena Playhouse will sail into a new season that sounds promising enough to honor the institution it once was.

In their second year as joint producing directors, Susan Dietz and Stephen Rothman will bring to the Playhouse's main stage the American premiere of British playwright Stephen Poliakoff's "Breaking the Silence"; the West Coast premiere of John Bunzel's "Death of a Buick"; the first major revival in years of Garson Kanin's "Born Yesterday"--and a fourth show to be announced. "Probably a musical," Dietz said, "probably small and not new. We've found that musicals pay off," she added.

(Have they ever: The hugely successful "Mail" by Jerry Colker and Michael Rupert, in for its second round at the Playhouse, has been extended to Jan. 2 and conceivably could run through March when the new season begins.)

More good news is that Dietz and Rothman will offer a fifth production in 1988, this one in the smaller Balcony Theater, which will be converted from a 99-seat Equity Waiver space to a contract house accommodating about 120 people.

The play, a two-character mystery-thriller by Australian playwright Warwick Moss called "Down an Alley Filled With Cats," "is inventive but not controversial," Dietz said, "intellectually challenging, rather like 'Sleuth.' It should look great in that space. The audience will get really involved."

"There's so much theater going on in Canada and Australia that we know very little of," Rothman added. "We thought it might be fun to introduce our subscribers to it."

"We're very committed to new work," Dietz underscored, noting that the Bunzel play--a skewed, comic look at the American family poised on the San Andreas fault (somewhat akin to his "Delirious," produced by Dietz in 1985)--was only workshopped once, at the Manhattan Theatre Club. "It's a very personal piece for John. Buck Henry called it the 'Long Day's Journey Into Night' of the '80s."

The Poliakoff play was Rothman's baby. He'd seen it in London in 1985 done by the Royal Shakespeare. "It was so stunning," he said, "that I immediately tried to get the rights, but they were tied up with (New York producer) Frank Gero and Poliakoff was holding out for a major production."

When Gero's time ran out, Rothman was able to persuade Poliakoff that the Playhouse would give "Breaking the Silence" the major production he wanted.

"It's another very personal piece," Dietz added, "based on Poliakoff's grandparents" and chronicling the post-Russian revolution lives of an aristocratic Jewish family forced to adapt to a world for which they are completely unprepared. "It's a real actors' piece," Rothman said.

"Particularly the two women," Dietz said. "The wife is the perfect aristocrat who ends up working and 'finding herself.' "

As for "Born Yesterday," "That was always the dream project," Rothman said dreamily. "I wanted to do it when I got here in '79, but Garson (Kanin) wouldn't release the rights. There was a musical in the works too. I went back to Garson and this time he said yes."

So 1988 lines up as a potentially exciting season, considerably more adventurous than 1987, while "Mail's" spectacular success has given Rothman and Dietz just the moral affirmation they needed.

"We broke the rules (with "Mail")," Rothman said. "We were told we wouldn't be able to recapture the momentum (when we brought it back)."

"It also helped that we had an open theater ready to sell tickets," Dietz added. Their obvious satisfaction is corroborated by the figures. The Playhouse counted 8,300 subscribers under Jessica Myerson in 1986--the first season of its comeback after 17 dark years. Those subscriptions were a vote of confidence considerably dampened by the artistic limpness of the offerings that year. Only 4,000 subscribers renewed in 1987 when Dietz and Rothman took over.

"We managed to get it back up to 8,300 with the help of new subscribers," Rothman said, "but this year we've already got 6,100 renewals on the strength of a small brochure that didn't even list any plays." And, he might have added, on the strength of "Mail's" appeal.

More encouraging yet--and again largely thanks to "Mail"--is a reported $1.3 million in earned income (box office), representing better than 72% of the $1.8 million budget for 1987. Said Rothman:

"We were behind in contributed income, so 'Mail' is beginning to make up for the shortfall."

For all their exuberance, however, Dietz and Rothman are keenly aware of their good fortune. It's given them new clout and finally put the Playhouse back on the map.

" 'Mail' gave us national recognition our first season out," Dietz remarked, "but we have a big job to do and not much time to do it in."

BACK TO GOSPEL, TRULY: Jennifer Holliday is returning to her roots. The big-voiced singer, who made her first major impact in "Your Arms Too Short to Box With God" some eight years ago and followed it up with an even bigger splash in "Dreamgirls," takes over the role of the reverend's wife in "The Gospel Truth" at the Beverly Theater Friday.

PIECES AND BITS: John Diehl, Louise Fletcher, James Gammon, Arliss Howard, Holly Hunter, Diane Ladd, Amy Madigan and Cyril O'Reilly have been set for Sam Shepard's "A Lie of the Mind" opening Jan. 21 at the Mark Taper. Robert Woodruff directs . . .

And if you're into having "Sunday Brunch With August Strindberg," the recently created Strindberg Society of Los Angeles is holding one Sunday, 1 p.m., at Second Stage. Cyril O'Reilly and David O. Cameron will read "Playing With Fire" and "Simoun" (213/850-7286) .

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