Monday night was once again audience participation time at South Coast Repertory's Mainstage playhouse, as this season's NewSCRipts series began.
The series premise is quite simple: SCR gives unstaged, open readings of a play in progress and then invites the audience to stick around to give on-the-spot critiques.
The play tossed to the masses this night was Keith Curran's "Dalton's Back," a work with its share of whimsy, wit and trendy self-awareness, but underscored by the experiences of parental abuse and neglect.
And the critics--about 100 of the 200 attending the reading stayed for the discussion--participated with obvious relish.
"It's extremely well written, but jeez, why is Dalton (the play's central figure) such a wimp?" a man in the third row asked the SCR contingent on stage, including director Martin Benson and dramaturge Jerry Patch. "He's so self-centered, so self-absorbed. This guy's got a lot of problems."
Then a woman, seven rows back, shot back: "Hey, no problems, no play!"
The exchange, typical of the lively comments during the 40-minute discussion, drew a grin from author Curran, who sat quietly in a front-row side seat.
"It's a fascinating and enlightening process," Curran said after the session. "You want to hear their perceptions, their views--I mean, the ultimate audiences are going to be the people out there."
Now in its third year, SCR's NewSCRipts series is part of the Costa Mesa company's program to develop new plays. The aim of the readings project is to try out plays that have the potential to be produced by SCR or some other company.
It so happens that most of the previous NewSCRipts works have been or are to be produced--including Allan Havis' "Haut Gout" and Neal Bell's "Cold Sweat" at SCR; Mayo Simon's "Elaine's Daughter" in Louisville, and Howard Korder's "Boy's Life" in New York.
The Curran work is one of several new plays being considered for a possible Second Stage production at SCR early next year, David Emmes, SCR producing artistic director, said Monday.
Actually, SCR's ties with "Dalton's Back" date back several months to a new-play conference at the Sundance Institute in Utah. Curran's work was chosen for workshop treatment there, and the dramaturge assigned to it was SCR's Jerry Patch.
The work has already been given workshop readings at the Circle Repertory in New York and McCarter Theatre in Princeton, N.J.
SCR's Monday night reading, directed by Benson, featured in the cast Mark Murphey, Annabella Price, Michael Alvarez, Barbara Tarbuck and Dean Fortunato.
"It's somewhat different from the usual (SCR) works. It's much more a play of feelings, rather than ideas," said Patch, explaining the new script's attraction to SCR. "It's a very personal, lyrical work."
"Dalton's Back"--the first full-length play by Curran, 31--is about Dalton Possil, whose emotions swerve from warmly affectionate and gently humorous to fits of anger that border on physical abuse.
Curran traces the tumultuous growing up of Dalton, whose absentee father is a vague parental figure, but whose mother, an embittered housewife, is a study in extremes. At times she lashes out at Dalton with verbal and physical abuse; at other times she is full of remorse and the model of loving comfort.
Dalton's life also involves two close friendships: Hiram, a swaggering boyhood pal and, most importantly, Teresa, his live-in lover, who is both consoling and needling.
The links between Dalton's childhood and adulthood are dramatized by simultaneous scenes--the characters from each time frame often speaking much the same phrases, while Dalton is going through parallel emotions.
"Dalton's Back" has been Curran's off-and-on-project for years. Meanwhile, he has been writing other scripts, including a one-act play that has been staged by the Circle Repertory in New York.
"This ('Dalton's Back') is the most familial of anything I've done, the most about childhood wounds that still afflict many adults," said the New York-based Curran, an actor (he's toured nationally with "Annie" and "Twentieth Century") who is now a full-time playwright.
Yes, his play is about child abuse and its cyclical impact on a family, "but not in clinical or stereotypical terms," he said.
"Abuse can be at all levels; it can come from loving parents, and it doesn't necessarily involve actual physical violence."
Most of all, the play is about how "people find themselves--or, at the very least, start the search for themselves," Curran said. In Dalton's case, "He finally recognizes the pained child in himself, that he needs to come to terms with those memories. It is, in many ways, a play about his rebirth."
At the Monday night discussion, "Dalton's Back" got mostly raves: "impressive," "very perceptive," "beautifully written."
There were, however, some significant divisions of opinion.
To some, the simultaneous flashbacks and flash-forwards, with their overlapping dialogues, were confusing at first and better saved for later in the play.
But one playgoer retorted: "It worked for me. That is the beauty of it (scene construction), the interlocking of his childhood and adulthood."
Some also found the "whole personality" of Dalton as an adult incompletely depicted, the girlfriend character "too glib and cutesy" and the pair a contradictory "odd couple." But others felt these roles were well developed, and their mutual attractions--and conflicts--clearly delineated.
But there seemed a consensus on the ending. "By confronting his childhood, Dalton begins to find himself, and his mother, at last," one viewer said. "He's beginning to come to grips with himself--what he can be and also what he can never be."
Curran, clearly pleased by the comment, nodded.
The next Monday night NewSCRipts reading will be Mark Stein's "At Long Last, Leo" Feb. 1, and a new Neal Bell play March 14. Works are still to be announced for April 25 and June 13. Readings are at 7:30 p.m. Tickets $6. Call (714) 957-4033.