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THEATER : Forty at 30: Staging Gracefully : Avant-garde? Hardly. Cutting-edge? No. But Theatre Forty is far from the stodgy old troupe that its long tenure might imply.

August 13, 1995|Jan Breslauer | Jan Breslauer is a regular contributor to Calendar.

On Aug. 26, Theatre Forty, one of Los Angeles' longest- running small stage companies, will launch its 30th season with one of the American stage's favorite plays: Thornton Wilder's 1938 "Our Town." The match, as the stage manager of Grover's Corners, N.H., might say, is as good as they come.

The troupe, after all, is known for its knack for staging American revivals. And both the play and the company have become perennials in their respective realms.

Perhaps even more telling, though, Theatre Forty and "Our Town" also suffer the same bum rap--namely, that they're prim but never provocative.

As the 1994 winner of the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle's Margaret Harford Award for continuous achievement in small theater, Theatre Forty does indeed have a lengthy track record to live down. Yet the company is no mere moldy-oldie.

"There's something about stable that connotes something I don't like," says Artistic Director William Frankfather, seated in the modest company dressing room, with its institutional pink walls and lone costume rack, in the theater on the Beverly Hills High School campus.

"When I accepted the Margaret Harford Award, I mentioned something about us being the fuddy-duddies of the small professional theaters," Frankfather continues. "But I meant that tongue in cheek, because I know that that reputation's out there."

The problem, he says, is convincing people that stable doesn't necessarily mean stodgy. For while Theatre Forty may not be avant-garde--"It's true," he says, "we don't really do cutting-edge theater"--critics often praise the company's work with both classics and new works.

Last season, for example, in a Times review, Philip Brandes called Theatre Forty's revival of "Tobacco Road" (directed by Frankfather, who was also in the cast) "meticulous."

Similarly, Scott Collins hailed the company's sixth annual one-act festival in a Times review as "one of the richest and most satisfying shows in town. Not to mention one of the most provocative." Collins also cited the boldness of the bill, with a play about a father grieving his son's putatively AIDS-related death placed back-to-back with a dark satire in which a mother and father perform at-home brain surgery on their child.

Ironically, the same stability that tarnishes Theatre Forty's image also keeps it afloat. A membership company in which actors audition to get in, pay dues and are eligible to audition for any role in the season, it also has a roster of 1,500 subscribers that would be the envy of many a small theater.

Together, these two factors go a long way toward explaining why this company has lasted 30 years even as countless others have gone and continue to go under. Of course, the consistently high quality of its stagecraft also plays a role.

"We've had our ups and downs, but in 30 years, mostly ups," Frankfather says.

Among the other L.A. theaters that have been around for two decades or more--such as East West Players or the Inner City Cultural Center--most have made their mark with community- or ethnicity-specific fare. That has never been Theatre Forty's gambit; it is, in fact, one of the most eclectic groups around.

The reasons for this are ostensibly administrative.

"You must have a season in which there would be a role for anybody in the company to audition for," Frankfather says. "We try to do a new play every year, an American revival, a classic and something else."

Yet the task is also to strike a balance between pragmatic and artistic considerations.

"I could do four Neil Simon plays next year, sell the houses out and boost our subscribers significantly," Frankfather says. "But that does not serve our members, and it does not make a season with variety."

T he group was launched in the early 1960s, when actress Susan French (who appears in "Our Town") would gather fellow thespians at her Santa Monica home to spend Sundays reading Shakespeare. (Theatre Forty's name is taken from the street address of French's home.)

After a couple of years, the group of Bard aficionados began to itch for a space in which they could actually perform. In 1965, they rented their first venue, a converted machine shop, and opened with a production of "The Winter's Tale."

In 1966, the group became more widely known when it offered free Shakespeare ("Twelfth Night" and "The Merchant of Venice") in MacArthur Park. The success of this venture also propelled the actors into new quarters, in the Beverly Hills Playhouse on Robertson Boulevard, where the company stayed for three seasons.

In 1967, the alliance between the company and the Beverly Hills school system was forged, and by 1969 the group was housed at Horace Mann School in Beverly Hills.

"It was mostly Shakespeare and exclusively classics for the first eight to 10 years," says Frankfather, who joined the acting group in 1974. "Most of the other companies were doing showcase things."

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