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STAGE WEEK

Seymour: Enjoying His Case of the 'Jitters'

December 06, 1987|JANICE ARKATOV

"This is a good seasonal show," said Jeff Seymour, "unless you're interested in doing a Christmas show--which I'm not. But it does take place during the Christmas season and calls for a Christmas tree on stage." The vehicle is David French's "Jitters" (just opened at the Gnu Theatre in North Hollywood), a Toronto-set, three-act, nine-character comedy focusing on the hoped-for comeback of leading lady Jessica Logan.

"I'm avoiding the term backstage comedy ; that's not my idea of fun," Seymour said. "But reading this--it was just so accurate, so much like what goes on backstage."

He should know. As the Gnu's founder and artistic director, Seymour is once again directing--but this time, he is acting, too, playing the director of the play-within-the-play. Confusing? "Oh yeah. The things I'd say (as director) were so much like the play's lines. I'd tell people to get going and they'd just sit there."

Although he gets fewer strokes from directing and producing, they are roles that Seymour (whose credits at the theater include "Best Wishes," "Brothers" and "Spanish Confusion") clearly relishes. "This is my theater," he said proudly. "I produce, direct, design the sets for everything. And I live next door."

All of which came in handy when the Gnu's last entry, John Patrick Shanley's "Italian American Reconciliation," closed recently--with four days' notice. "I was really stuck," Seymour said. "See, we never rent out, we don't get grants, we don't have a company. Luckily, I had a couple of world premieres set aside--and I had 'Jitters' (which was staged at South Coast Repertory last year). It cost less to do than the premieres, it's a proven play and no playwright was going to be hanging over my shoulder. And I could get it up quickly . That's not a condemnation of 'Jitters.' It's a wonderful play."

Fans of Robert and Clara Schumann, take note: Leigh Kaplan's "Clara, a Monodrama with Piano Performance" has a single benefit performance at Mount St. Mary's Little Theatre, today at 2 p.m.

"It takes place in 1860," said the actress/pianist. "Clara has invited the audience to her home to refute statements made in an unauthorized biography of her husband." The unfolding story includes Clara's relationship with her pianist father, meeting Robert at age 9, her nine pregnancies--and her husband's breakdown in 1854. "My big coup," Kaplan said, "is explaining why Clara didn't visit Robert at the asylum till just before his death. Of course, my answer is hypothetical, but I think it's valid."

"Clara" (which Kaplan bowed in 1985 and has since performed a dozen times) is balanced by her musical turns at the piano: "Of the 16 pieces, 10 are by Robert, two by Clara, one by Brahms, one by Scarlatti and two short ones by Bach." As for the double-duty required, "It did throw me a little at first," said Kaplan (a pianist by profession, "but always torn between music and acting"). "I used to finish a piece and wonder where I was (in the script). Now I've written each cue at the bottom of the music."

CRITICAL CROSS FIRE: "Hunting Cockroaches," Janusz Glowacki's comedy about two Polish emigres trying to make it in modern-day New York, recently opened at the Mark Taper Forum. Swoosie Kurtz and Malcolm McDowell star.

Said The Times' Sylvie Drake: "Arthur Penn has directed with good punctuation and a low profile, allowing the wit to speak for itself. But it's Glowacki's play that is ultimately troublesome. Comical tangents are as far as he ventures when it comes to plot. He is depicting a condition , a stuck state of being, rather than a way to move on. It gives us a stuck play, full of charm, not substance."

From Richard Stayton in the Herald Examiner: "Kurtz and McDowell seem to have spent most of their rehearsal time polishing Polish-American accents. The hard work shows: Their dialogues occasionally become fascinating duets. But it's difficult to believe in their relationship as anything except a theatrical contrivance. Not only do the two never sleep on the bed dominating the stage, they also rarely touch while on it."

In the Daily News, Tom Jacobs was nuts about Swoosie Kurtz: "It will be a long time before you will again have a chance to see such a subtle, well-thought-out, beautifully executed comic performance. . . . 'Hunting Cockroaches' would probably seem pretty weak without such a tremendous performance at its center; indeed, even with Kurtz, it comes off as thin. But it's worth seeing for its sardonic wit, its sometimes sharp satire and especially for Kurtz."

Polly Warfield, in Drama-Logue, also loved Kurtz--and the play. "This wry and resonant little comedy is autobiographical. Glowacki's essay, reprinted in the theater program from the New York Times, makes it clear the rigors, injustices, brutalities, humiliations and insanities his play portrays are his own experience and, like his play's protagonists, he has survived them with grace, psychologically sound and in good humor."

From Thomas O'Connor in the Orange County Register: "Even when he tries for American-inflected one-liners, Glowacki's humor keeps swirling back to the dark, edgy and fatalistic. This may pose a problem for the sort of American audiences who like their laughs broader and brighter and a tad more, uh, accessible. Stick with him, though. The deeper its waters run, the more starkly, bitingly funny is 'Hunting Cockroaches.' "

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