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STAGE REVIEW : 'Hatful of Rain' Revived : Co-star Jeff Seymour says the 1955 play is more than a story about drug abuse. It will open at the Gnu Theatre in North Hollywood.

August 14, 1992|TOM JACOBS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Tom Jacobs is a Toluca Lake writer

"A Hatful of Rain" is commonly thought of as a drama about drug abuse. But to Jeff Seymour, who co-directs and co- stars in the revival of the 1955 play, which opens Thursday at North Hollywood's Gnu Theatre, that's a superficial reading of a timeless work.

"The drug abuse gives the show its forward thrust," Seymour said as he prepared for a recent rehearsal. "But the more we get into it, the more we realize it really has to do with communication and with relationship problems."

"It's more of a story of family relationships than drug addiction," agreed Jeff Hall, co-director. "I imagine that when it first came out, the drug theme was very sensational. But I think it goes a lot deeper than that."

Set in New York City in the 1950s, the play centers on two brothers, one of whom, Johnny, became addicted to morphine after being wounded in battle during the Korean War. Through the course of the drama, playwright Michael Gazzo shows how Johnny's addiction alters the relationships between the various members of his family, including his pregnant wife, his father and his brother, Polo.

"It's a great play, I think," said Don Nardini, who plays Polo to Seymour's Johnny. (Nardini played Marco in the Gnu's acclaimed production of Arthur Miller's "A View From the Bridge.") "The five leads are very rich, and even the small parts--the thugs and whatnot--are very well written."

Seymour's interest in directing the play dates back 10 years, when he scheduled a production at his first small theater company. He lost the lease on the building before it could actually be staged.

The idea returned to his mind after students in one of his acting classes performed a scene as an exercise. Intrigued, he turned again to the text--and found that it has stood the test of time.

"I don't think any of it seems dated or trite," he said. "There's nothing about it that creaks."

Besides the then-sensational subject matter, "A Hatful of Rain" is best remembered as the best play to be developed at the Actors Studio, the school where Lee Strasberg perfected and taught the technique known as method acting. Gazzo, an actor and playwright, wrote the play only after an ensemble of actors from the school spent two weeks improvising dialogue based on a scene he had written. Inspired by their work, he expanded the scene to a full-length play.

Few of the improvised lines made it into the final version of the play, which opened on Broadway in November, 1955. But Seymour suspects the play's unusual genesis may account for some of its unique qualities.

"It's not conventionally structured," he said. "Some of the scenes reveal themselves through taking some interesting twists and turns."

Seymour isn't sure whether to credit Gazzo or the process, but he is also impressed with the dialogue. "Sometimes playwrights write, and you read it, and you can't seem to memorize it. There's something a little clunky about the dialogue that doesn't logically follow your character's flow of thought. In this, you think about what your character would logically say next, and lo and behold, you look down at the script and that's what he's having you say."

There is one irony to the Gnu staging this play. It is one of the best-known artifacts from the heyday of method acting, but Seymour does not use the method.

He respects what Strasberg accomplished. In the days before the method became popular, "You saw a lot more of what we would call mugging."

Seymour believes this was largely changed by Strasberg's ideas. Method acting "took people back to square one," he said. "Things that had been taken for granted were re-examined. Actors explored, through exercises, things like, 'What is it really like to drink a hot cup of coffee?'

"Now we've gone past that," he added.

Where and When

What: "A Hatful of Rain."

Where: Gnu Theatre, 10426 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood.

Hours: Previews at 8 tonight, Saturday, Sunday, Tuesday and Wednesday evenings; opens at 8 p.m. Aug. 20 Thursday through Sunday for a 10-week run.

Price: $12 for previews, $15-$20 for the regular performances.

Call: (818) 508-5344.

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