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THEATER : Will It Be a Day at the Beach? : 'I'm open to almost anything,' says Michael Greif, La Jolla Playhouse's new artistic director. Fine, but after Des McAnuff, will that be enough?

March 20, 1994|PATRICK PACHECO | Patrick Pacheco is a free-lance writer based in New York. and

NEW YORK — In 1990, Joseph Papp named 31-year-old Michael Greif to be one of three resident directors at the New York Public Theatre. "Michael who?" was the response from the New York theater community.

Greif's work at the Public got some mixed reviews, but he was taken seriously. Still, he's not exactly a big name. Yet. Just over a week ago, Greif, known mostly as a free-lance director for regional theaters, became the recipient of another surprise appointment: As of the 1995 season, he will replace Des McAnuff as artistic director of the La Jolla Playhouse, one of the most prestigious jobs in American regional theater.

Once again, theater insiders are buzzing, although Playhouse officials say choosing a not-yet-too-well-known director is exactly what they'd done when they brought McAnuff on board just over a decade ago.

"We wanted someone with directorial talent and institutional experience, but we were also looking for a younger person," says Gary L. Wollman, president of the Board of Trustees of the La Jolla Playhouse. (Playhouse founding director McAnuff, 41, is best known for co-creating "The Who's Tommy," and is leaving to pursue film and theater projects.)

"Part of it stemmed from our experience with Des. Our artistic mission here is to be a haven for new work, and there's a whole new generation of theater artists whom we expect Michael to bring to the Playhouse. He's certainly someone whose work, to some extent, challenges the current assumptions as to what theater should be."

Responses to Greif's eclectic productions prove the point. The same New York critics who praised the rich theatricality of his breakthrough 1990 production of "Machinal" at the Public Theatre damned his indulgent spectacle of "Pericles" at the same venue. Greif is unapologetic about his devotion to the expressive possibilities of the stage and its craft.

"I'm interested in pieces that revel in their own theatricality," Greif said in a recent phone interview from Baltimore, where he is currently directing rehearsals of Donald Margulies' "The Loman Family Picnic" at the Center Stage.

Greif's link to the La Jolla Playhouse dates to 1983, the year the theater was revived. While a graduate student at UC San Diego, where the theater is located, he assisted McAnuff on Playhouse productions of "Romeo and Juliet," and, subsequently, "As You Like It" and "Big River," both in 1984. He returned to the theater in 1986 to co-direct, with Bill Irwin, "The Three Cuckolds" and again in 1992 to direct Joe Orton's "What the Butler Saw."

Greif caught the public eye in New York, however, during his 1990-91 stint at the Public. Among the plays he directed that season were "A Bright Room Called Day," Tony Kushner's political allegory about artists and writers living in the Weimar Republic; Constance Congdon's "Casanova," a Rashomon-like reappraisal of the notorious womanizer told from the points of view of the title character, his long-suffering lover and a transvestite; and the maligned "Pericles," starring Campbell Scott.

Kushner's first major production in New York was panned, but few of those who saw "Bright Room" will forget the first act curtain, when the devil appeared in a smoking jacket accompanied by a red-eyed hellhound and clouds of smoke.

"Michael has what I feel is exactly the right balance," Kushner said of Greif's ability to walk the line between cool intellectualism and melodrama. "He's completely unafraid of going to very dark places. On its best nights, the play was working not when the audience was sobbing openly at the end, but when they were frightened and disturbed and scared."

Greif admits that he is comfortable with what he calls the "yin and yang" of the theater, accommodating both intellect and emotions. "I feel that our very best directors are those who are brilliant interpreters of the material but who also have a great sense of the dramatic. I like the idea of an intelligent framework but one that is never enforced at the expense of real blood and guts and tears between the characters onstage."

Greif has mined those feelings over wide terrain. "Machinal," for example, is an obscure 1928 work by Sophie Treadwell exploring one woman's socially claustrophobic journey to murder. This summer, Greif will be part of McAnuff's final season as artistic director at the La Jolla Playhouse, directing Neal Bell's new play based on the Emile Zola novel "Therese Raquin." Greif's resume could well be called eclectic, even allowing for his one excursion into the musical theater, directing international and American touring productions of Roger Miller's "Big River."

"I'm open to almost anything," Greif said. "I worry about that, being pulled in a lot of different directions. But that's one of the reasons I was drawn to La Jolla. Its reputation, to a large extent, is based on its diversity, and the board is committed to that."

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