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THEATER : Covering All the Bases : Jack O'Brien, the energetic artistic director of San Diego's Old Globe Theatre, segues from his record-breaking 'King Lear' to a Broadway-bound revival of the 1955 musical 'Damn Yankees'

September 26, 1993|BARBARA ISENBERG | Barbara Isenberg is a Times staff writer

Consider King Lear's daughter Regan, whom O'Brien chose to make an alcoholic. "Do you really think there weren't alcoholics in the 16th Century? Of course there were. My feeling is to underscore the fact that the human dilemma changes its venue and clothes but never its intent. People always loved the same, felt disappointment and passion, betrayal and elation."

But don't misunderstand, he cautions: "I'm not a director who feels I should be in your face all the time. I really want you to watch the actors and listen to the play. I don't think I should be telling you every 10 minutes what to think. I like to leave the audience alone with the magic. I tend to trust the material or I don't do it. "

That's how O'Brien talks, making his point by speaking in italics, rolling his eyes or leaning in to whisper a confidence. Doing a two-minute riff on why his hair loss persuaded him to abandon acting, or noting how his Norwich terrier Pumpkin is "known to the industry as Punky," the director welcomes a visitor with the chatty, blithe manner of a musical-comedy character.

His office reflects that same shameless theatricality. O'Brien's corner of the Old Globe is smallish and has very little empty wall or desk space. The gray walls are covered with drawings, photos and other theater memorabilia--a cluttered testimonial to friends, philosophy and theater life.

O'Brien was so much a showman, even as a child, he says, that teachers employed him to keep younger kids quiet. He's no slouch today either, whether punctuating his frequent monologues with French words and phrases or spinning intricate tales of his life.

He was reared in Saginaw, Mich., and played piano by ear at 5 years old and swears his parents told him he was carrying a tune at 9 months. His businessman father sang in a barbershop quartet and was a frequent event host, telling jokes and stories.

After his father died, says O'Brien, "I found a notebook filled with the first three paragraphs of over 150 stories but none of the punch lines," he says. "If he got the story started right, he knew where to go."

So does O'Brien, who acknowledges the parallels in his own career. "I just translated (the storytelling) into another medium. I weave the company into what we laughingly call 'Jack's novel.' I write this novel for them about who they are and what's going on in their world. When I had 90 people in 'Porgy and Bess,' each had a story, history and family relationship."

On "Lear," for instance, Holbrook recalls the crucial scene in which Lear has already been cast out by one daughter and is about to be rejected by the second. "I look around," says Holbrook, slipping into character. "He has the stage filled with people, and each has a life and strong attitude about Lear. His stage pictures (provide) all these reactions to what Lear is doing, so they help the audience understand what's going on."

O'Brien says he learned from the best. "Part of why I'm sitting in this chair is that I was given a huge gift. In the '60s, right out of college, I was sucked into Ellis Rabb's APA (Assn. of Producing Artists) repertory company--Rosemary Harris, Will Geer, Nancy Marchand, Keene Curtis, blah, blah, blah. The sine qua non of their generation, a band of merry pranksters going from theater to theater doing mostly classical work."

The University of Michigan was one of their residencies, and student O'Brien reviewed their production of "The School for Scandal" for the Michigan Daily. Then, just a few years after graduation, he caught up with them again in New York and left a job teaching at Hunter College to become Rabb's assistant.

"I took a 50% pay cut to go for coffee for Rosemary and Ellis (who were married then), to walk the dog, iron sheets, serve dinner, write checks, pay bills. I cooked. I cleaned. I did whatever was necessary. I was like a personal servant. And I took notes and learned. I soaked it up.

"Most of that classical American theater tradition narrowed to an isthmus in the '60s, and I was the baby. They told me everything. They showed me everything. They encouraged me and berated me. They instructed, goaded, teased, confided in and inoculated me."

When APA disbanded in '69, he says, "I was a bona fide professional." He hooked up with college pal Bob James, with whom he'd created two musicals while at Michigan. The two men turned Joe McGinniss' "The Selling of the President" into a musical that played first at American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco, then went on to Broadway.

The show lasted just five performances on Broadway, and, disheartened, James concentrated on jazz, where he remains a well-known pianist and composer, while O'Brien set writing aside for directing. He free-lanced, then spent time as associate director of John Houseman's Acting Company.

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