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News From the Human Zoo : English playwright Terry Johnson's 'Cries From the Mammal House' will have its U.S. premiere tonight.

August 28, 1992|ROBERT KOEHLER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES: Robert Koehler writes regularly about theater for The Times

"How on earth do you compete with the news?"

Playwright Terry Johnson was lamenting over the phone from his London home about being a dramatist, and especially if his 1984 play, "Cries From The Mammal House," making its official American premiere tonight at the Limelight Playhouse in North Hollywood, would stand the test of time and the news.

On the other hand, director Michael Unger, single-handedly assembling designer Daniel A. Saks' set on the Limelight stage before sitting down to talk about Johnson's play, seems to hold no doubts.

"Well, I'm thrilled with the cast, and how they've taken to a very difficult play. Terry has done a remarkable job of tying together two disparate worlds," said Unger, a wiry, intense man of 30. "It's structured in three acts--the first and the third set in a decrepit zoo, the zoo as a false replication of nature. The second is set in a kind of human zoo, the island of Mauritius. Terry cleverly lets the happiness of the second act seep into the third, so what has started with a great deal of misery actually ends happily."

When it first opened in a production by the Royal Court Theatre in London, "Cries From the Mammal House" received a mixed reaction, Johnson said. "People in England don't tend to like serious plays with happy endings. And coming after 'Insignificance' "--his play, which he later adapted for film, about an encounter between Marilyn Monroe, Albert Einstein, Sen. Joseph McCarthy and Joe DiMaggio--"it threw people off. But then, I never write the same play twice."

Unger knew of "Mammal House" from his time working as a stage assistant at the Williamstown (Mass.) Theatre Festival, where he arranged a reading of Johnson's epic in 1987. Earlier this year, when the Chicago native was staging "The Taming of the Shrew" at the Complex in Hollywood, actors from the Misfits Ensemble also working at the Complex and impressed with Unger's work asked him to join them in a search for an upcoming show.

After poring through dozens of plays, Unger said "a light just came on in my head, and I remembered about this curious play about a dysfunctional family falling apart just like the zoo around them." While securing rights, Unger was told by Johnson's agent that a previous staging of "Mammal House" at Chicago's Absolute Theatre had been unauthorized.

Unger's is not only the first American staging to have Johnson's blessing, but also his involvement. "Michael informed me," said Johnson, "that he wanted to transplant the action from England to Central California, and though his ideas were good enough, I thought I could do better. He faxed me his ideas, and I faxed him back four times as much.

"It's really extraordinary and unexpected that I have this opportunity to redo the play, as it were, because I always felt the need to cut some things and add others. I can trust things to Michael at this point, because his ideas were intelligent and helpful. Although there seem to be a spate of plays on the British stage right now dealing with issues of ecological and spiritual crises, I do think that 'Mammal House' was one of the first to tackle these themes, and since it was designed to resonate with an English audience in the mid-'80s, I'm very surprised that it may do this with an American audience."

Although the play's sense of desperation was sparked by Johnson's wanderings through a vacated, crumbling zoo near Manchester ("The animals had been gone for six years, yet their presence haunted the place"), its climactic sense of hope was inspired by naturalist Gerald Durrell's book, "Golden Bats and Pink Pigeons."

It's an unlikely conclusion for a play in an unlikely spot--a storefront in a bland North Hollywood commercial zone. The comfortable Limelight has only one drawback for Unger.

"I would ideally want a much bigger stage space for this play," he said, "because the play itself is big."

"But hey," he added, fondling one of the show's mock dodo birds, "I'm ready for what people think."

Where and When

What: "Cries from the Mammal House."

Where: The Limelight Playhouse, 10634 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood.

When: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays through Sept. 20.

Price: $12.

Call: (213) 466-1767.

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