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Season's Greetings : South Coast Repertory's 30th Year Will Have a Familiar British Accent

September 03, 1993|JAN HERMAN

They've made it to the start of another season--again. Having accomplished the feat 29 times before, they say it's business as usual.

Yet on the eve of their 30th season, which begins tonight with a revival of Paul Osborn's nearly forgotten "Morning's at Seven," the two founders of South Coast Repertory can't help feeling an extra measure of satisfaction and relief.

"Given our longevity, especially when so many theaters have gone by the wayside, it's something of a milestone," SCR artistic director Martin Benson said in an interview earlier this week in Costa Mesa.

Anyone looking for a theme to the season beyond marketing hoopla ("In the 1960s South Coast Repertory Made Waves. Get Set for the Next Wave!") will be sorely disappointed.

"There's no single idea that identifies this as our 30th," said Benson, who is directing Osborn's gentle 1939 back-porch comedy. "We're not doing 30 one-act plays or plays that are 30 minutes long or anything like that. In fact, it's really no different from other seasons."

SCR will offer 11 plays for subscribers and single-ticket buyers in its 1993-94 schedule, six on the Mainstage and five on the Second Stage. (See accompanying box, F25.) The customary holiday show, an adaptation of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol," also will be presented on the Mainstage as a non-subscription offering.

"We selected plays the way we always do," Benson continued. "It is an agonizing, endless process that starts six to nine months earlier. Finally, almost out of frustration, we say, 'Well, here it is.' "

David Emmes, SCR's producing artistic director, put it another way in a separate interview at the county's only professional resident theater.

"We just keep looking for the best possible plays we can get that fit into the parameters of our needs," he said. "In a sense this is the most considered season we've ever done.

"More thought, more analysis, more attention to our company artists--how they can work from one show to the other--has gone into our planning than ever. That's partly because of economics and partly because we hope it will show up to our advantage on stage."

A look at the upcoming season confirms the similarity to previous seasons and, if anything, a deepened loyalty to SCR's long-held taste for plays of British and Irish origin.

There are a total of five such offerings this time: Alan Ayckbourn's "Man of the Moment," Peter Shaffer's "Lettice & Lovage" and Brian Friel's "Dancing at Lughnasa" on the Mainstage, and Joe Orton's "Loot" and Frank McGuinness' "Someone Who'll Watch Over Me" on the Second Stage.

That compares with three British plays last season and, not counting Caribbean-style Shakespeare, three the season before.

Ayckbourn has come to seem almost a house playwright. "Man of the Moment," to be directed by Emmes, is the third of the Englishman's dark comedies that SCR will have produced in as many years. ("Intimate Exchanges" was done in 1993 and "Woman in Mind" in 1992. A fourth, "A Chorus of Disapproval," was staged in 1989.)

"It's true we've been an Anglophile theater," Emmes said. "But that goes back to our interest in text and literature, language and argument. It just happens that some very strong writers come from the British Isles."

Meanwhile, another playwright from overseas who also will be familiar to longtime SCR audiences is the South African dramatist Athol Fugard. "Playland," to be directed by Benson, will be the fourth SCR production of Fugard's work. (Others were "Blood Knot" in 1982; "Master Harold . . . and the Boys" in 1985; and "The Road to Mecca" in 1989.)

Perhaps the most striking aspect of the upcoming season, however, is how little new work by contemporary American writers has been scheduled. This comes as a particular surprise because SCR is so widely touted for developing original plays.

The theater has announced just two world premieres this season: New York playwright Richard Greenberg's "Night and Her Stars" (a change from the previously titled "Ecstatic Air") on the Mainstage, and SCR literary manager John Glore's "The Company of Heaven" (which, incidentally, has a British setting) on the Second Stage.

With the final offering on the Second Stage still not chosen, the season could have a third new play. But, Emmes said, "nothing has been decided."

Even if the number of originals is down, though, Benson and Emmes are remarkably high on the two they'll do.

Greenberg's latest, which SCR commissioned after premiering his "The Extra Man" in 1991, is said to be about the quiz-show scandals of the '50s. Still a script-in-progress, it will go into private workshops at the theater next week to prepare for a production opening in February.

Benson, who confesses that he prefers the play's old title, described "Night and Her Stars" as "wickedly funny" and full of "seductive arias" delivered by a television producer whose way with words could make him a modern Mephistopheles.

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