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'Picture' a Comedy Inspired by Death

February 07, 1988|JANICE ARKATOV

"Best said, it's a little comedy about death," announced playwright Donald Margulies, whose "What's Wrong With This Picture?" opens this weekend at the Back Alley (where his "Found a Peanut" played in 1986).

"A Brooklyn housewife has died and all the relatives are sitting shiva (a Jewish mourning ritual). But then the dead woman, Shirley Nussbaum, comes home. . . .

"The father is glad but the son is ambivalent--he's more prepared to go on with his life--and his mother's return is slowing that down. There's a limit to how long suffering and grieving can go on."

Margulies added that the impetus for the play was a dream he had about his own mother, soon after her death: "She showed up at the door, caked with mud and said, 'Look, I don't want to talk about it. I just want to jump in the shower.' That was my starting point--it got me thinking how I'd react."

The play was originally staged in 1985 at the Manhattan Theatre Club, where Claudia Weill directed Bob Dishy and Madeline Kahn.

"It played two weeks but was never reviewed," the New York-based Margulies explained. "This is the draft I wrote after that, at the Playwrights Conference at the Sundance Institute in 1985. Now what's happening--even with a less stellar cast--is that the play is emerging. And my job is to define some of the areas that aren't there. That's my value as a living playwright: You have the opportunity to state what your intent is, make changes, define moments--without people flailing around, trying to figure it out by themselves."

Stuart Damon directs.

Predator and prey become one in Shirley Hillard's "The Last Hunt," which has its world premiere Thursday at the Tiffany Theatre. San Francisco producer/director Steve Dobbins ("The Dan White Incident," "Are You Now Or Have You Ever Been?," "Doo Wop") mounts the story of two hunters bringing home a slain deer whose soul--unbeknown to them--has entered the body of one of them.

"It's not your usual genre play," noted actor Kent Minault (an alumnus of "Dan White," both onstage locally and of the Emmy-winning PBS version), who plays the hunter's buddy, Joe. "It's intriguing, strong, disturbing, hypnotic. It's also very funny--but the laughs are uneasy. I'd call it a farmhouse play, linked with a strong American tradition, but with Gothic overtones. We play a couple of good ol' boys, coming down from hunting. Tom has a few drinks on the floor, falls through, passes out . . . and finds he likes it down there. What happens then is definitely a break from regular life."

CRITICAL CROSSFIRE: Playwright Craig Lucas ("Blue Window, "Three Postcards") has returned to South Coast Repertory with "Prelude to a Kiss," which presents a modern-day couple's marriage and honeymoon--with a mysterious dab of magic.

Dan Sullivan, in The Times, credited Norman Rene with a staging that "couldn't be better" and concluded: "Who are you, who am I, whom can we trust? Good questions for a play to ask, and as long as 'Prelude to a Kiss' keeps to the question mode, it's a fascinating piece. But its answers need work."

Said Drama-Logue's Lee Melville: "What places 'Prelude' in the rare stratosphere of excellence is the manner in which Lucas handles language. His characters are interesting and believable; they talk to each other as they would offstage, except the redundant is eliminated and the unusual accelerated."

From Daily Variety's Kathleen O'Steen: "Craig Lucas has penned a charming, witty comedy about love and marriage that, despite its fairy tale implications, manages to tackle some deep-rooted fears associated with the often sought-after land of nuptial bliss."

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