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Realistic to Slightly Absurd : Drew Katzman's double-bill on a loss of humanity in the corporate world and brother-and-sister TV addicts opens tonight at Theatre West.

June 18, 1993|JANICE ARKATOV | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Janice Arkatov writes about theater for The Times

The first time he read Drew Katzman's one-act "Little Prisons," directoW. Swackhamer didn't care for it at all.

"He said he wouldn't work on it till it was better," admits the playwright, who was developing the piece in workshops at Theatre West. "So for the next year and a half, I attacked it and attacked it. It's taken a lot of layers of rewriting, refining, paring it down, letting it build from the hearts of the characters."

Eventually, Swackhamer came around, and tonight, Katzman's double-bill "Little Prisons Big Escapes" opens at Theatre West in a benefit performance for Project Angel Food.

The playwright co-stars in the two-hander with fellow company member Anne Haney, with whom he'd previously appeared at the theater in "Verdigris" (1985).

"The first piece, 'Big Escapes,' is about a man high up on the corporate ladder," says Katzman. "His assistant is now more capable than him; that morning he'd had her fire herself."

The writer allows that the corporate world is more familiar to him than he'd like: In the past few years, he's supplemented his income as a computer programmer. "Big Escapes" was inspired by witnessing one particularly "frustrating, unnerving" corporate situation, he says, and "a way to get revenge on one horrible person."

The impetus for "Little Prisons" was less emotional.

"It was very technical," Katzman notes, "not at all divinely inspired. I wanted to write something for Anne and me to do in a different kind of relationship: technically different, stylistically different, different characters." The result is the rural-set story of brother and sister Roscoe and Lillian, who spend their lives watching TV.

"It's slightly absurdist," says the playwright. "The first piece is much more realistic. The two of them look at similar themes in completely different ways, but they resonate together."

Emmy- and Director's Guild-nominee Swackhamer is marking his return to stage-directing after 20 years. " 'Big Escapes' is about how technology has taken over humanity, how we've run away from it," says the former Broadway actor. "The woman in the piece is trying to get a human answer why she was canned--and he won't give it to her. 'Little Prisons' refers to these people trapped in a television world. But the basis for both pieces is humanity."

It was a call from Haney that brought New York-born Katzman back to writing. "I'd been busy with non-theater activities," said the 46-year-old writer, whose acting credits include TV and regional theater and a five-year artistic directorship of Sante Fe's Theatre Arts Corp. "When she called I said I hoped she was calling to ask me to perform in something. She said 'No, I was hoping you'd write something.' And that was the seed."

Since that time, the Syracuse University graduate has reveled in his return to writing.

"I'd never written for myself before--and that was hard," he says. "I could hear Anne's voice a lot easier than my own, the rhythms of her voice and character. I did a lot of work before rehearsal, and a lot of fine-tuning during the process. The only place where it's hard is trying not to see my stuff when I'm working as an actor. It's gotten to the point where onstage I'm the actor, and at home I'm the writer." Either place, he notes, is fine. "I've never been happier," Katzman says simply, "than rehearsing this play."

WHERE AND WHEN

What: "Little Prisons Big Escapes."

Location: Theatre West, 3333 Cahuenga Blvd. West, Studio City.

Hours: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays. Closes Aug. 1. No performance July 4.

Price: $10 students and seniors, $15 general.

Call: (213) 851-7977.

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