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UNCIVIL WAR : Corpses and Swordplay Are Just Some of the Risky Business in Jon Bastian's 'Noah Johnson'

January 23, 1992|MARK CHALON SMITH | Mark Chalon Smith is a free-lance writer who regularly covers theater for The Times Orange County Edition.

It's less than two weeks before South Coast Repertory's world premiere of "Noah Johnson Had a Whore . . .," and the rehearsal grind is on. Besides a technician or two, there's not much of an audience--except for all those corpses lying around, a few propped up in front row seats.

"Noah Johnson" centers on a profiteering undertaker, his part-black apprentice (Noah) and a scheming prostitute during the Civil War, a time when dead bodies (and the need for sturdy caskets) were not in short supply. To create the verve of realism for Jon Bastian's black comedy, the plan is to have SCR's Second Stage thick with reclining dummies, done up prettily as traumatized corpses.

The ones already out inspire a few graveyard jokes among the cast, breaking the tedium. Jonathan McMurtry, who plays Jeremiah Bentonville, the conniving undertaker, is working through a key passage, absently carrying what passes for a severed head. He looks at it blankly, then sets it down in front of Melissa Weil, trying to find the character of Lydia, the opportunistic whore.

Director Martin Benson watches as both actors pause, not knowing what to do next. Maybe Jeremiah should fondle it, perhaps indulge in a little Hamlet reflection. What about a quick juggle, from Jeremiah to Lydia?

McMurtry has his own idea when Benson asks if the head should figure so baldly in the scene: "I don't know," McMurtry says, "maybe she should have to kiss it." Weil's big eyes get bigger, more playful; she looks as if she might go for such direction.

Benson just laughs. He's hoping everyone, including himself, will be laughing when "Noah Johnson" finally opens this Friday night.

The folks at SCR know this play, more so than most, is a gamble. It's the first major staging of an unknown work by an unknown writer. That's a risk right off. Beyond that, though, is the nature of "Noah Johnson."

There's suppose to be campiness in this encampment of wry characters and corpses, but will an audience pick up on all the dark humor or find any amusement swallowed by the Grand Guignol aura? Can the Civil War, a period that most people feel solemn about, be a proper setting for satire and mischief?

Benson, an acclaimed director who founded the Costa Mesa repertory with David Emmes in 1964, has what can best be described as a fearless attitude. He thinks Bastian's piece, runner-up in SCR's California Playwrights Competition last year, is both witty and thought-generating. Benson believes SCR's patrons, supposedly some of the more sophisticated in Orange County, will get the jokes without offense.

"Listen, the biggest risk is in boring an audience," Benson offers during a break. "The trick here is in letting them know from the beginning that the experience will be outrageous. Once they have that first laugh, then we're OK."

Uh-huh, but what if they don't laugh?

Benson smiles, "Then we'll have to rely on sex."

If the rehearsals are a clue, "Noah Johnson" is sexy, if you can ignore all the carnage that surrounds Lydia's eroticism (in one scene, she enjoys a bit of slapstick, tossing body parts over her shoulder while searching a casket). Weil, at least at this point, approaches her with a primitive intensity as Lydia manipulates Noah, and tries, less successfully, to maneuver Jeremiah.

Dominic Hoffman, who plays Noah, and Weil, are running through an encounter where Lydia uses her attractiveness to compromise Noah. It's a moment that's crucial to the plot and requires both finesse and heat. The episode ends with Lydia leaping into the arms of Noah, a wild kiss clinching the moment.

After one particularly enthusiastic take, Weil, with her legs still wrapped around Hoffman, takes a breath and grins, "Think that'll do it?"

Playwright Bastian will admit, when prodded a bit, that he has much riding on "Noah Johnson": The real beginning of a successful writing career, more talk about a movie deal (he said that Disney has made overtures about a screenplay), the crystallization of a personal dream. But on the surface, the 29-year-old Loyola-Marymount film school grad seems cool, unruffled, satisfied.

First off, this has been a giant leap in his career. Just four days before he was told about winning second prize in the playwrights contest, Bastian had been rejected for a Mark Taper Forum writers' workshop where he'd hoped to develop another of his plays, "Horse Latitude."

It also vindicated his faith in "Noah Johnson." Bastian had developed the comedy in a writers' group at the Colony Theatre in Los Angeles, but that playhouse decided it wasn't ready to produce. "They thought it seemed more like a novel. I went into a mini-writer's panic," he remembered. "Luckily, I got over that."

Since SCR took on the script, there have been a few revisions, but Bastian likes the results. No bitter stories of battles with Benson and other SCR honchos about the changes, only happy tales about cooperation and good vibes. But there must be something that peeves him about the process . . . .

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